DULUTH, Minn.-Attorneys for former University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey coach Shannon Miller are arguing that the school's 2014 decision to part ways with the longtime coach "had nothing to do with performance."
Rather, the university repeatedly told the five-time national championship-winning coach that the decision to sever ties after 16 seasons was "strictly financial," the attorneys said in a recent legal brief.
They made the argument in a 56-page memorandum filed last Friday in response to the university's motion for summary judgement in the federal lawsuit brought by Miller and two other coaches that seeks a combined $18 million in damages.
"UMD raised job performance as a rationale only after Miller publicly accused UMD of discrimination, and after the media and public questioned the sincerity and validity of UMD's financial reasoning," attorney Sharon Van Dyck wrote in the brief filed last Friday.
Miller's attorneys contend that the university changed its explanation after Miller was let go during a "purge" of openly gay women in the athletics department - and that fellow plaintiffs Jen Banford, the softball coach, and Annette Wiles, the women's basketball coach, were forced to resign due to a hostile work environment.
The documents provide a pointedly different version of events compared to the sequence described by university attorneys in recent weeks.
In seeking summary judgment, the university argued that evidence shows Miller was let go because of slipping performance coupled with financial challenges that did not justify continuing to pay her high salary. The university also argued that it was Miller who demanded that the nonrenewal be portrayed solely as a financial decision.
Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle can grant summary judgment to the school, forgoing a trial, if he determines that undisputed facts and the law would make it impossible for the plaintiffs to prevail. He's expected to schedule a hearing on the motion before making a decision.
Tim Pramas, an attorney in the University of Minnesota Office of General Counsel, said UMD is standing by its position.
"We remain steadfast in our belief that the claims of discrimination are unfounded," he said in a statement. "Acting in the best interests of our student-athletes is always our motivation and time has shown that the coaching changes had a positive impact on our hockey, basketball and softball teams.
"We have filed for summary judgment because we believe that we have a strong case based on the facts and the law. We will submit our reply to the plaintiffs' summary judgement response this Friday. We plan to aggressively defend ourselves throughout the legal process."
Attorneys for the former coaches argue in the brief that summary judgment should be denied because a "reasonable jury" could find evidence of inequity and discrimination at the school.
The memorandum reiterates claims that the women were subjected to multiple instances of harassment and that university officials failed to act on their reports. It also cites alleged disparities in funding, scholarships and equipment - among other issues - between men's and women's sports programs at UMD.
"While each Plaintiff has her own story to tell, the common threads, woven throughout the fabric of their collective experiences, reflect the culture of bias, discrimination, and the retaliation they encountered at UMD," Van Dyck wrote.
UMD's attorneys earlier argued that Miller's contract was not renewed because her team's performance was declining and she was paid significantly more per win than any other coach in women's hockey.
They said Miller began requesting a two-year extension in July 2014, but was rebuffed by Athletic Director Josh Berlo and Chancellor Lendley Black, who asked for additional time to analyze her performance. It was in late November or early December that Black instructed Berlo not to renew the contract, they said.
"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 deposition.
However, Miller's attorneys argue that was not the case. They said Berlo and Black implied to Miller in July that her contract would be renewed, only to tell her in December that she was being let go for financial reasons.
The documents filed last Friday bluntly accuse Berlo of leading an "effort to rid the department of six self-identified lesbian coaches, assistant coaches, and athletic support staff at the university." The attorneys said Wiles and Banford - both of whom left on their own volition, according to the university - were "engulfed in the anti-Miller and anti-woman current."
"All three plaintiffs were successful sports head coaches at UMD before the end of the 2014-2015 academic year," Van Dyck wrote. "The discrimination experienced by each plaintiff was felt by the others, and contributed to a culture of hostility each endured."
Lynne Williams, director of marketing and public relations at UMD, said there is no truth to those allegations.
"We continue to stand behind our athletic department and are incredibly proud of the widespread success they have accomplished this last year," she said in an email. "UMD was one of only five Division II schools to be awarded an "A" grade (highest possible grade) from the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports for the percentage of women's teams with female head coaches. UMD is committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming campus community."
Judge Kyle is expected to schedule a hearing for oral arguments on the summary judgment motion before issuing a ruling. If he denies the motion, the judge said he wants the case to go to trial in September, but a formal date has yet to be scheduled.
Attorneys said a trial could last about three weeks, though UMD is also seeking to have individual trials for the three plaintiffs. Kyle said he would rule on that motion, if necessary, after the summary judgment issue is resolved.