DULUTH — Shannon Miller and the University of Minnesota Duluth have reached a tentative agreement that could resolve her discrimination claims against the school after more than four years of litigation.
The existence of a proposed settlement was disclosed in documents filed in federal court Friday, Oct. 4. No details have been released.
UMD last week was formally ordered to pay Miller $1.96 million in damages, along with more than $2.53 million in attorneys' fees, expenses and interest, after a jury found UMD liable for sex discrimination and retaliation in the December 2014 decision not to offer her a new contract after 16 seasons as the women's hockey coach.
Also last week, Miller and two other former UMD women's sports coaches filed a petition to the Minnesota Supreme Court seeking the reinstatement of a dismissed state lawsuit alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
"I can confirm that our legal team was able to reach a global settlement agreement with Shannon Miller at both the federal and state levels," UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said Monday, Oct. 7. "We are not able to get into further details until the agreement is signed and finalized."
Dan Siegel, an Oakland, Calif., attorney representing Miller, confirmed the settlement discussions, but cautioned that the agreement has yet to be put into writing. Often, he said, "the devil is in the details," taking weeks or months to finalize.
"We have been talking, and we are pretty confident," Siegel said. "But my experience tells me not to claim that a case has been settled until the papers have been signed. And I haven't even seen any papers yet."
An agreement with Miller would resolve both her federal and state cases, but would have no ramifications on two other plaintiffs, former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles and former softball coach and women's hockey operations director Jen Banford, according to the legal teams.
Miller on Sept. 30 accepted a reduced federal award that includes $750,000 for past emotional distress, $744,832 for past lost wages and benefits and $461,278 for future economic benefits. She declined a new trial after a judge upheld the jury's findings but slashed an "excessive" $4.21 million verdict.
News of the possible settlement came in a memo from Jeanette Bazis, a Minneapolis attorney representing the university, as she requested additional time to file an appeal of the federal case.
"At Magistrate Judge (Kate) Menendez's suggestion, plaintiff Shannon Miller and the university, through their respective counsel, engaged in settlement discussions and reached a resolution of Ms. Miller's claims," Bazis told the court. "That settlement agreement, however, has not yet been memorialized in a signed written document."
U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz on Monday agreed to give the parties until Oct. 17 to seek review by the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals.
Wiles and Banford were initially included in the federal case. While Schiltz opined that the sexual orientation claims were possibly the "strongest" element of the women's case, he said he lacked jurisdiction to hear those counts in federal court, prompting the plaintiffs to take the claims to state court.
The state case was filed in March 2018, the same day Miller prevailed in federal court, but it was dismissed in October 2018 by a judge who found that the statute of limitations had expired, among other factors. The women on Thursday asked the state high court to review that finding.
But a significant decision also looms in federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, Oct. 8, is set to hear arguments on the issue of whether the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — a question that has divided lower courts.
"I think everyone is eager to see how those arguments go tomorrow with the Supreme Court," Siegel said. "If the Supreme Court ruling is favorable, that means Annette and Jen will win in the 8th Circuit and we'll be back before Judge Schiltz for a trial on their claims."