Former UMD coaches suing university claim $18 million in damages

Three former University of Minnesota Duluth women's sports coaches suing the university for discrimination estimate their damages at $18 million, according to court documents filed this week ahead of a Monday hearing on the case.

Former UMD women basketball coach Annette Wiles, softball coach Jen Banford and hockey coach Shannon Miller announce a lawsuit against the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota at the offices of their attorneys in Eden Prairie, Minn., in September 2015. Two of their lawyers are Dan Siegel (far left) and Donald Mark Jr. (far right). Richard Tsong-Taatarii / Minneapolis Star Tribune
We are part of The Trust Project.

Three former University of Minnesota Duluth women’s sports coaches suing the university for discrimination estimate their damages at $18 million, according to court documents filed this week ahead of a Monday hearing on the case.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the University of Minnesota Board of Regents filed documents sharply countering claims made in the lawsuit brought by former women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller, former softball coach Jen Banford and former women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles.

A pretrial hearing is scheduled for Monday at the federal courthouse in Duluth.

In a statement filed Wednesday, attorneys for the three coaches again outline claims of discrimination based on age, gender, sexual orientation and - in the case of Canadians Banford and Miller - national origin.

They also claim “discrimination by an educational institution receiving federal assistance, reprisal because of their reporting of that discrimination, creation of a hostile work environment, violation of federal and state equal pay statutes, and violation of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act.”


Miller, who led the women’s hockey program to five national championships in her 16 years as head coach, was informed in December 2014 that her contract would not be renewed after that season.

Banford was informed at the same time as the rest of Miller’s hockey staff that she would not be brought back as the team’s director of hockey operations; she later rejected a one-year contract offer from UMD to remain as softball coach.

Wiles announced her resignation June 1 as head women’s basketball coach after seven seasons with the Bulldogs.

The three filed the lawsuit in September.

“Because defendant’s conduct has caused ongoing damages for each plaintiff, it is not possible to provide an accurate itemization of damages at this time,” the document states. “However, plaintiffs have reasonably calculated their aggregate losses to be approximately $18,000,000.”

That total includes $8 million for Miller and $5 million each for Banford and Wiles.

The lawsuit seeks back pay, front pay, damages for emotional distress, compensatory damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs and prejudgment interest - but an estimate of the damages being sought had not previously been available.

At the end of November, the three coaches and five current or former student-athletes filed a Title IX complaint against UMD. The complaint asks the federal Office for Civil Rights to investigate UMD on more than 50 gender discrimination allegations between women’s and men’s sports teams. The alleged disparities relate to funding for travel, meals, recruiting, scholarships and meals. Title IX is the federal law that bars schools that receive federal money from discriminating based on gender. The university has disputed those claims.


‘Meritless’ claims

The 45-page lawsuit filed in September outlined dozens of incidents and facts that the three coaches claim show discrimination and disparity in how they and their teams were treated compared to other coaches and teams at UMD.

In an 11-page response filed this week, the university’s attorneys counter some but not all of the lawsuit’s claims.

The university notes that Miller’s replacement is a woman who identifies as gay; Banford’s replacement is a woman older than Banford; and Wiles’ replacement is a woman - each of those hires being “contrary” to discrimination claims.

And it states that the coaches’ “allegation that they received unequal pay for equal work is meritless.

“Compensation for each employee depends on job performance, duties and responsibilities, and market conditions. An employee’s gender and sexual orientation were not considered in determining compensation.”

The university says Miller’s gender, sexual orientation, age and national origin “played no role whatsoever” in the decision to not renew her contract.

“She had not qualified for the NCAA Tournament since the 2010-11 season. … Indeed, the worst four years of Miller’s career were the four seasons prior to the non-renewal of her contract,” the university states. “Contrary to her allegations, Miller’s need to improve the hockey program’s performance in competition, in the classroom, and in the community were made clear to her.”


The university also disputes Miller’s claims that UMD showed discrimination by not terminating the employment of men’s hockey coach Scott Sandelin, who has a lower career winning record and made more money than Miller. Sandelin’s contract is not up for renewal until 2017, the filing states, and his teams had more success in NCAA tournaments in recent years than did Miller’s teams.

And the university claims that “much of the other evidence cited by Miller is simply false.” Miller had claimed women’s hockey players were not given scholarships for summer school - a fact disputed by the university.

“Indeed, the total women’s hockey scholarship funding has historically exceeded that of the men’s hockey team. For instance, in 2014-15, total scholarships of $460,785 were awarded for women’s hockey, versus $408,754 for men’s hockey, even though the men’s team had more players,” the court filing claims.

It also states that “to the extent Miller brought complaints to the attention of the University, each complaint was investigated, and appropriate action was taken in response.”

Dan Siegel, an attorney for the women, said the university’s response is “pretty routine” as preparation for the first hearing before a judge, which he said should be about scheduling a trial.

“I am not surprised by anything the university has to say at the moment,” Siegel said, but he said the statement that Miller made false claims was an “aggressive” one to make.

“I think that Shannon is a very credible person, and what she has to say is backed up by what a lot of other people have to say,” Siegel said. “When they say her gender and sexual orientation played no role in the university’s decision, I guess it will be interesting to see what some of the university witnesses have to say when we take their depositions in a few months.”

UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said Friday that the university continues “to refute the claims of discrimination, and we plan to make our case aggressively through the legal process.”

This week’s court filing was the first time the university specifically countered claims made in the lawsuit; Williams said that the U of M has been following its personnel privacy policies and “waiting for the process to really get underway before our legal team is able to respond properly. This is the start of that process.”

Williams also said this week marked the first time the university had seen a damage estimate claim made by the former coaches. She said Monday’s hearing should be “pretty routine, (talking) about scheduling and timelines for the trial.”

Banford and Wiles

Regarding Banford, the university states that UMD “offered and always intended to offer” her a contract extension as softball coach. Her non-renewal as director of hockey operations for the women’s team “was consistent with common practice when a head coach is replaced.”

The university further claims that when Banford circulated a letter from Athletic Director Josh Berlo stating her appointment as “director of hockey operations/head softball coach” would not be renewed, she failed to include a cover email from Assistant Athletic Director Jay Finnerty stating that “we are in the process of working with Human Resources to reclassify your job as solely head softball coach.”

The university denies claims that administrators “held hostage” equipment for the softball team or discriminated against the team in access to Malosky Stadium.

“And, far from discriminating against Banford on the basis of her national origin, in early 2014, Athletic Director Berlo was successful in convincing an acquaintance - the head coach of a Division I women’s program - to write a letter to federal authorities in support of Banford’s application for U.S. citizenship,” the university writes.

As with Banford, the university writes that it intended to keep Wiles as women’s basketball coach and denies that she was forced to resign because of discrimination and a hostile work environment.

Wiles alleges in the lawsuit that Berlo and Assistant Athletic Director Abbey Strong “established a pattern of disrespect, exclusion and lack of civility in their interactions with Wiles,” and that they “began to act in a cold and hostile manner towards Wiles” after she was the keynote speaker for the GLBT National Coming Out Day luncheon on the UMD campus in October 2013.

The university says those claims are “baseless,” noting that Wiles was openly gay before the event and that Strong “regularly socialized with Wiles and her partner.” It also says Berlo “harbored no hostility toward Wiles or the GLBT community,” citing as evidence Berlo traveling several hundred miles in 2012 to attend the wedding of “a close friend who is gay.”

The university attributes a deterioration in the friendship between Strong and Wiles to a dispute about charges Wiles allegedly incurred for her university-provided leased vehicle.

“Wiles declined to pay the charges she had incurred,” the university claims. “Instead, she insisted that Strong find money in the department’s budget to pay for the charges. Strong had difficulty finding money in the budget, and Wiles became hostile toward Strong - not the other way around.”

The university counters claims made by Wiles about her treatment compared to that of other UMD coaches. Among other claims, Wiles noted in the lawsuit that “after the 2014 women’s basketball season, a non-approved and invalid survey was provided to Wiles’ players, and the results of that survey were used to impact her merit raise. Wiles was never provided a hard copy of the questions, or provided a copy of the results in any form.”

The university says that the survey was provided to all UMD student-athletes, that the link was emailed to Wiles and all other coaches and that no coach was given results out of concerns for student privacy.

News Tribune reporter Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.


Coaches' statement filed this week

University's statement filed this week

Original lawsuit filed in September

Related Topics: HOCKEY
What to read next
State, local agencies tab accessory dwelling units of 800 square feet or less as solution for homelessness.
The Cowbot would be a way to mow down thistles as a way to control the spread of weeds, "like a Roomba for a pasture," says Eric Buchanan, a renewable energy scientist at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minnesota.
The Red River Valley Water Supply Project will sue farmland owners for eminent domain if they don’t sign easements before July 8, 2022. Farmers say the project is paying one-tenth what others pay for far smaller oil, gas and water pipelines.
Attendees to a recent meeting at a small country church on the border of Minnesota and South Dakota found armed guards at the church entrance. Then someone saw an AR-15, prompting a visit by the sheriff. It's the latest development in a battle for the soul of Singsaas Church near Astoria, South Dakota. The conflict pits a divisive new pastor and his growing nondenominational congregation, who revived the old church, and many descendants of the church's old families, worried about the future of a pioneer legacy.