A former University of Minnesota Duluth student athlete is suing the school, alleging retaliation for her support of her former coach, who resigned last year amid accusations of sexual misconduct.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court alleges that UMD’s athletic administration discriminated against Paige Du Bois, a former UMD track and cross-country runner, by interfering with her athletic and academic career in violation of federal Title IX laws and of the university’s own administrative process.
The lawsuit includes one count of unlawful retaliation and discrimination, one count of unlawful discrimination and one count of negligence. Du Bois is seeking compensatory damages and damages for emotional distress, as well as attorneys’ fees.
Du Bois, 21, alleges that the school’s actions against her were taken because she questioned administrators’ investigation into possible sexual misconduct from then-UMD women’s cross-country and track coach Joanna Warmington, and because she encouraged teammates with favorable information about Warmington to come forward.
“I have been forced by the University and UMD to file this lawsuit,” Du Bois said in a statement through her attorney, Beau D. McGraw of the Twin Cities-based McGraw Law Firm. “I was mentally and emotionally abused, discriminated against and forced to leave UMD by the UMD administration. I was lied to and forced off campus when they no longer found me useful to them and saw that I did not support their coaching change.”
The suit also alleges that UMD failed to provide funding and equipment for women’s teams as compared to men’s programs and that Du Bois was treated unequally in comparison to male athletes.
In a statement Wednesday, UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said the school hadn’t yet been served a summons in the case.
“We have not yet been served and were not aware of the filing until we received the press release from members of the media,” she said. “As with our normal practice, we do not comment on pending litigation.”
Sexual misconduct allegations
Warmington resigned from her post in August 2018, after missing the previous spring's outdoor track season while on a leave of absence.
Shortly before her resignation, a report from the University of Minnesota’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action "found that Ms. Warmington engaged in sexual harassment in violation of University policy."
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."
Spring, summer without a coach
According to the lawsuit, Du Bois and her teammates were told in March 2018 that Warmington was taking a leave of absence but were not told why. When Du Bois expressed concern to Assistant Athletic Director Karen Stromme about having to go through the season without her coach, Stromme offered Du Bois the chance to “redshirt” — to sit out for the season without affecting her college athletics eligibility — though Du Bois elected to run without a coach that spring.
Du Bois met with athletic administrators, including Stromme and Athletic Director Josh Berlo, at least nine times during the summer of 2018, the suit says, and was told that it was a matter of “when, not if” Warmington would return.
In the meantime, the suit says, Du Bois told administrators that she "had a connection to Warmington and felt she needed to know" when Warmington would return. The administrators declined to provide specifics but asked Du Bois to help keep the team ready over the summer for Warmington’s return, during which she performed a number of tasks that typically fall to the head coach, the suit says.
The suit also alleges that Stromme contacted Du Bois about possibly being named president of the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for UMD but later told her the committee didn’t have a president and failed to follow up with Du Bois’ earlier emails on the matter.
Du Bois had intended to stay at UMD if Warmington returned, the suit says. In August 2018, Warmington told Du Bois that she had been given an ultimatum either to resign her post or be fired, and that Du Bois needed to make a decision about her academic and athletic future, according to the lawsuit.
In an emergency meeting with the women’s cross-country team on Aug. 20, Berlo told the team that Warmington had resigned and that no coach was available for the fall because Warmington’s resignation had caught the administration by surprise — a statement the suit alleges was untruthful.
When Du Bois confronted Berlo and said Warmington had been asked to resign, Berlo said he was unable to comment on the matter, the suit says.
After injuring her knee over the summer, Du Bois inquired about redshirting for at least one meet during the fall. Despite Stromme offering her the option the previous spring, Du Bois said in the suit that she was told she would not be allowed to sit out.
In the suit, Du Bois mentions a fellow athlete and roommate who was allowed to redshirt despite being medically cleared to compete by UMD training staff. Du Bois says she believes she was treated differently from this athlete in retaliation for her support of Warmington.
At this point, she inquired about being allowed to talk to other schools about joining their programs, but the suit alleges that Du Bois was barred from inquiring about transferring or even visiting other campuses that fall, being warned that such a move would mean her removal from the team and would endanger her athletic eligibility.
Stromme told Du Bois during a Sept. 4 meeting that she wasn’t allowed to redshirt because she “was just trying to use the school for its facilities with no intention of competing,” according to the suit.
The suit says Du Bois was told that day that she had been removed from the team and was instructed to clear out her locker, but that she had until Sept. 6 to make a final decision on whether to participate.
Suit: Complaint filed, then ignored
In early September 2018, Du Bois filed a complaint with the EOAA alleging retaliation for her support of Warmington. Despite several inquiries from Du Bois, the complaint went unresolved until Feb. 27, 2019, a day after Du Bois contacted University of Minnesota regent Daniel Hsu about the matter, the suit says.
In a letter that day, Du Bois was told her complaint hadn’t, in fact, alleged any retaliation and that the EOAA would not investigate. Instead, the complaint was forwarded to UMD, which hired an independent investigator to look into the case, the suit says. Du Bois alleges that she has not been allowed to view that report, the suit says, and believes the entire investigation was conducted in the 24 hours after she contacted Regent Hsu.
On Sept. 8, Du Bois transferred to Northern Michigan University, where she still is a member of that school’s women’s cross-country and track teams.
“As a result of Defendant’s discriminatory action, Plaintiff (has) been denied her civil right to pursue an equal opportunity to participate in varsity intercollegiate athletics and, as such, has been denied the educational, economic, physical, psychological and social benefits of athletic participation,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff has suffered economic and compensatory damages associated with, among other things, lost opportunities, loss of future educational and employment opportunities, emotional distress, lost self-esteem, humiliation and the denial of equal opportunity because of sex.”