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UMD seeks summary judgment on coaches' suit; documents shed light on discrimination case

DULUTH, Minn. — Longtime University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey coach Shannon Miller met with athletic director Josh Berlo and Chancellor Lendley Black through the summer and fall of 2014 to discuss a new contract.

Then beginning her 16th season as the Bulldogs head coach, Miller wanted a two-year extension through June 2017, after which she planned to "take a year off and then do something else with my life," according to documents filed recently in the federal lawsuit she brought against the university.

But in the wake of years of declining competitive success and academic performance from Miller's team, coupled with her high salary, Black decided not to renew the contract of the five-time NCAA championship-winning coach.

And while Miller complained to her team and publicly that her contract was not being renewed due to "blatant discrimination," Miller herself "demanded that UMD characterize the decision to the public as a 'financial' one."

That is the argument of university attorneys in a motion filed this month in the lawsuit brought by Miller and two other former women's sports coaches alleging discrimination.

The university is seeking summary judgment on the claims brought by Miller, former softball coach Jen Banford and former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles, who are seeking a combined $18 million in damages. A judge can grant summary judgment to one side, forgoing a trial, if he or she determines that undisputed facts and the law would make it impossible for the other party to prevail.

The motions provide the most-detailed look at the university's defense to date, outlining the process that led to Miller's contentious departure and the subsequent resignations of Banford and Wiles.

University attorneys argue in the documents that there has been no evidence of a correlation between alleged discrimination on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation or national origin and the non-renewal of Miller's contract or the decisions by Banford and Wiles to voluntarily leave their coaching roles.

"It was not until UMD was faced with whether or not to give Miller a new contract, in the context of long-term performance issues, that the non-renewal decision was made," attorneys for the university wrote of Miller's case. "The facts, even taken in the light most favorable to Miller, do not show that the non-renewal was triggered by any of her complaints."

Dan Siegel, an Oakland, Calif., attorney representing the three coaches, said he and his clients "clearly do not agree" with those assertions.

"They've presented a very selective sampling of facts," Siegel told the News Tribune. "But they do not address the evidence that we believe shows discriminatory and unequal treatment — and there's lots of such evidence."

Miller's claims

The 45-page lawsuit filed in September 2015 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.

Miller, 53, who was born in Canada and is openly gay, alleges in the lawsuit that she was subjected to harassing mail and inappropriate comments from co-workers. She also cited alleged disparities in the funding between men's and women's sports programs at the university.

The school disputed those allegations, instead portraying her dismissal as being based entirely on performance and finances.

While enjoying success early in her coaching career, Miller's teams advanced to the NCAA playoffs only once in her final five seasons. Over that time period, Miller's salary averaged out to nearly $14,000 per win — dwarfing the approximately $5,000 paid to Wisconsin's head coach and $4,000 paid to Minnesota's head coach per win during the same time period, according to the university attorneys.

The university's motion documents a series of in-person meetings and phone calls related to contract negotiations — many of which the attorneys said were secretly recorded by Miller.

Miller reportedly began requesting the two-year extension in July 2014, but was rebuffed by Berlo and Black, who asked for additional time to analyze her performance. In late November or early December, Black instructed Berlo not to renew the contract, the motion states.

"Given ... how much Coach Miller was being paid versus what was happening with the team at that time in terms of results ... I am not sure that that was an appropriate return on that investment of her salary and compensation," Black testified in a recent deposition.

When informed of the non-renewal, the motion states, Miller agreed to coordinate the public announcement and plans for her departure with Berlo. Miller requested that she finish the season, and that the decision be portrayed as "strictly financial," the university attorneys said.

They said there was no evidence to support that Miller's non-renewal was related to her age, gender, sexual orientation or Canadian nationality.

"On the rare occasions when Miller complained of discrimination or harassment (and there is no evidence she complained regarding age or national-origin discrimination), UMD promptly investigated and took appropriate action," they wrote.

Banford and Wiles

Banford was simultaneously relieved of her duties as the women's hockey director of operations, which the university said is a standard procedure when there is a change in head coaches.

In February 2015, she rejected UMD's offer to stay on as softball coach, severing ties with the program after 10 seasons. She said she had been led to believe in December that she was also being eliminated as softball coach, and that she had been subject to workplace harassment similar to what was alleged by Miller.

The defense attorneys countered those claims, saying it was clear the university intended to keep her on as softball coach.

"Berlo invited Banford to apply for a hockey staff position when the new coach came on board," the motion states. "And the evidence is overwhelming that Berlo always intended to offer Banford a new contract as head softball coach, and did so."

Wiles announced in June 2015 that she was leaving UMD, citing an unhealthy work environment in the school's athletic department.

She alleged 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 her, and that she began to be "shunned and excluded" in the department.

The university attorneys presented a different picture of Wiles' job performance prior to her resignation. They said women's basketball players "complained of Wiles' verbal abuse, disrespect, lack of game presentation, her routine absence from the first hour of the team's two-hour practices, and many other issues."

They said Berlo planned to renew Wiles' contract, put her on a performance improvement plan and assign a new sports administrator to the program.

"Wiles has presented no direct evidence of discrimination, because none exists," the university wrote.

Next steps

Siegel said the plaintiffs will file written briefs in opposition to the summary judgment motions, providing greater detail on evidence they believe supports their claims.

"We think there is substantial discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation that needs to be demonstrated to the judge," he said.

Siegel was critical of the motions brought by the university, citing the multitudes of evidence in dispute.

"These summary judgment motions have kind of become out-of-hand," he said. "They're asking a judge to decide about the merits of the case based on 18 inches worth of paper. The volume of the documents for and against the motion itself demonstrates that the motion should not be granted."

Siegel said the exchange of evidence is largely complete, with final depositions having been taken earlier this week.

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle has scheduled a May 25 hearing at the federal courthouse in Duluth to hear oral arguments on the university's summary judgment motions and other issues.

A trial date has not been set, but the parties have been ordered to be prepared as soon as Sept. 1.

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