Portions of a lawsuit filed against the University of Minnesota Duluth by its former women's cross-country and track and field coach will be allowed to proceed in court, a judge ruled last week.
Joanna Warmington can continue to pursue claims of sex discrimination, reprisal and creation of a hostile work environment, 6th Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden said.
Warmington, who spent 10 seasons at the school, resigned in 2018 after an investigation resulted in a finding that she had displayed a pattern of sexual misconduct — a process that she claims was unfair and undertaken with the predetermined intent of firing her due to her vocal support of the equal treatment and funding of women's athletics.
According to documents, Warmington, who was first placed on leave in the spring of 2018, was given the choice to resign or be fired in August after the university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action found that she had violated numerous policies.
Specifically, the EOAA "concluded that Ms. Warmington's conduct was unwelcome because it was unsolicited, made multiple student-athletes feel uncomfortable, and taken together, created an unwelcome sexualized environment in which some student-athletes felt compelled to tolerate unwanted conduct of a sexual nature in order to maintain a positive relationship with their coach."
The EOAA also "decided that Ms. Warmington's pervasive conduct of a sexual nature with student-athletes on her team, made from her position of authority as their coach, had the effect of creating a sexualized, hostile and offensive environment in violation of University policy."
But Warmington, who filed simultaneous lawsuits in state and federal courts in October 2019, argued the investigation was "clearly biased" and that it served as pretext to eliminate her after Shannon Miller, another longtime women's athletics coach, won a lawsuit against the university for sex discrimination.
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Warmington, 49, claims she was given inadequate budgets and had to spend her own money on team expenses, that she faced discriminatory comments from a male-dominated athletic department, that she was held to double standards and that her complaints about inequities went unaddressed.
Attorneys asserted that Warmington was never given an opportunity to examine or refute the allegations against her, that "disgruntled student athletes were allowed to conspire" and that university administrators leaked out-of-context allegations in an attempt to smear her name and avoid that same controversy that ensued in Miller's case.
“After a very long process, I am extremely happy with the court decision and the chance for my voice to finally be heard,” Warmington said in a statement Tuesday.
Former coach can 'dig deeper' into claims
The university late last year filed a motion to dismiss the state case, arguing Warmington "has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted with respect to any of the claims."
But Hylden ruled last Wednesday that the former coach had put forward sufficient allegations to move forward with the discovery process on at least some of the claims.
"While plaintiff's complaint seems to make clear that she herself did not find much of the alleged harassment to be intolerable until she received the complaints of student athletes, the case must be allowed to move forward to dig deeper into those allegations," the judge wrote in a 12-page order.
Hylden said the termination of Warmington's employment, coupled with her claim that it was related to her sex, was sufficient on its own to clear the first legal hurdle.
"In addition, plaintiff alleges numerous specific instances where she feels she is being treated materially worse as a female coach than her male counterparts," he wrote. "What makes it to the jury may be another matter, but under the Rule 12 legal standard, that is enough for this claim to move forward."
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Hylden said it was "somewhat contradictory" that Warmington's complaint references UMD's controversial decision to oust Miller, the five-time national champion women's hockey coach. Warmington publicly supported the university's handling of the matter when Miller filed suit and prevailed at trial — though she now claims to have done so at the behest of Athletic Director Josh Berlo.
Regardless, the judge wrote: "It is enough that plaintiff claims she made complaints about unequal treatment for herself or her teams and that she suffered an adverse employment action (constructive termination) as a result. Defendant's motion must be denied on this count."
Hylden dismissed additional claims of negligence and invasion of privacy, and Warmington stipulated to the dismissal of several additional counts, including discrimination on the basis of age and sexual orientation and violations of the state's equal-pay-for-equal-work, whistleblower and invasion of privacy laws.
'Crisis of leadership at UMD'
In her statement, Warmington addressed the litigation from Miller and two other former women's sports coaches, Jen Banford and Annette Wiles, along with recent claims of sexism within the school's math department.
"There is a crisis of leadership at UMD from Chancellor (Lendley) Black on down, and I am surprised that there is no greater outcry within UMD, at the Board of Regents, or in the Legislature," she said. "I want to be a voice for all past people who have been wronged at this University and want to set a new culture of change for the future of this University.
"From the former UMD coaches who were wronged by this administration, to the athletes who have been punished, to my family, and for my son who committed suicide after hearing repeated hurtful remarks about me, I stand strong with courage to continue to fight for justice in this case and for others.”
The decision doesn't necessarily ensure the case will ultimately go to trial, with university officials vowing to continue contesting the claims.
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"The court dismissed the majority of the claims," university attorney Carrie Ryan Gallia said in a statement. "We will continue to work through the legal process and at the appropriate time, we plan to seek dismissal of the remaining claims through a summary judgment motion."
Beau McGraw, a Twin Cities attorney representing the former coach, argued that the decision to allow claims to proceed would allow Warmington "to conduct discovery to obtain additional information that proves her claims."
A trial has tentatively been set for Feb. 15 in State District Court in Duluth.
Warmington's federal case was dismissed by a judge in April 2020 and is currently on appeal.
U.S. District Judge Eric Tostrud wrote that she "has not alleged facts plausibly permitting an inference of discrimination on the basis of sex" and failed to demonstrate that her "Title IX-protected activity was a determinative factor in her termination." Additionally, he said her equal-pay claim was barred by the statute of limitations.
A panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard Warmington's challenge in February but has yet to issue an opinion.