Jury rules in Miller’s favor, requires UMD to pay $3.74 million
By: Idun Rasmussen and Zack Benz
Former UMD women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller was awarded $3.74 million in Duluth on March 15 after a jury found that she was subject to sex discrimination when her contract was not renewed in 2014 after 16 years at the university.
“I feel great, I’m thrilled, we made history,” Miller said at a celebration on top of the Radisson hotel in Duluth. “I feel elated and gratitude after three very difficult, very long years, that the jury saw that we had extraordinary evidence and an extraordinary team of lawyers.”
Miller’s representative, Attorney Dan Siegel, said that the victory is not only a win for Miller but for all women who coach and play women’s sports.
“The jury of people from this community, from Duluth and surrounding towns, believed correctly everything that we told them about UMD’s dishonesty regarding the reasons for the non renewal of Shannon Miller,” Siegel said. “They believed that it was a big mistake no doubt influenced by gender bias.”
Chancellor Lendley Black said in a press conference outside the courthouse that he was extremely disappointed and surprised by the verdict. The full press conference can be viewed on the Duluth News Tribune’s website.
“I still stand behind the actions that I took at UMD and know personally why I made the decisions I made,” Black said. “Given the fact that the verdict was just read, we will have to wait and get more advice from our counsel before we say anything more.”
Black said that he is proud of UMD Athletics and their staff for their work through the past three years.
“I also want to emphasize that my confidence in Josh Berlo, our athletic director, remains strong,” Black said. “I continue to support him.”
Black said that while he stands firm on the decision he made, he understands that the community had people on both sides of the case.
“Some members in the UMD community, as well as the Duluth community, were on the other side of this lawsuit,” Black said. “I want to emphasize that I respect their opinions and that I respect the right to disagree with us. I look forward to finding new ways to continue to work with people regardless of how they felt about this lawsuit.”
Tim Pramas, the university’s senior associate general counsel, said in the same press conference that the verdict was not as expected.
“We respectfully disagree with the verdict, but nevertheless do respect the hard work and attentiveness that went into the verdict,” Pramas said.
Pramas said that their team will have to spend some time considering their legal options, and together will determine their next step.
“The judge indicated that a meeting will be scheduled among counsel to determine the next step in the briefing process,” Pramas said. “We will continue to contest and dispute the claims. This was not a case of discrimination.”
In an email sent out to university employees on Thursday night, Chancellor Black said that he recognized that the university is already in a budget deficit and that there are many questions about the impact of the monetary damages awarded.
“We are responsible for the first $10,000 of the judgment, which athletics has funding in place to cover. We will know if there is more to be covered when the final details are worked out,” Black said in the email.
UMD’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations Lynne Williams said that students will not see their tuition impacted by this lawsuit.
“(Tuition) is something set by the board of regents and is completely separate from any action like this, a trial judgement,” Williams said. “Our priority in this situation always has been, and will continue to be, providing students the best educational experience. That will not change.”
Williams said that UMD firmly believes that there was no discrimination or retaliation in the decision to not renew Miller's contract.
“The decision was based on a variety of different reasons including things like the academic performance of the team, they had one of the lowest academic progress reports out of all women’s hockey teams in the country,” Williams said. “UMD cares deeply about the academic experience. They are students first and athletes second.”
Another claim by Miller, and the claims brought earlier in the legal process by the two other plaintiffs – former softball coach and women’s hockey director of operations Jen Banford and former women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles – were dismissed in February by the federal trial and will head to state court later this year.
“We still have another lawsuit in front of us for all three coaches at the state level,” Miller said. “The good news is that this judge, who’s a federal judge, said that our strongest claims are at the state level. So when your weakest claims are at the federal level, and win big, that’s a good sign.”
On the current verdict, Williams said that due to a series of motions, conversations with the judge and post-trial process, it will take several months before UMD can make a decision to appeal or not.
Miller said that she plans to put the money towards a healing center in Palm Springs, California, for women who have been victims of sexual assault.
“When I was a police officer for 10 years, I unfortunately had to deal with many, many women that were victims of sexual assault and rape and through the course of my life I have had so many friends that have experienced that,” Miller said.
“A long time before the #MeToo movement happened, I wrote in my journal that I would love to one day have enough financial freedom to build a healing center for rape victims,” Miller said.
According to Miller, the funds will not be enough to create such a center, but she is hoping that the money she has received will help attract other strong, successful women to the project.
“I want women to be able to come from around the world,” Miller said. “I don’t want them to pay a penny, and I want them to be embraced and healed and that’s where I’d like to put my money.”
Miller is also planning to apply to both women’s and men’s hockey head coaching positions, hoping that she will be the first woman to coach a men’s NHL team.
“I will apply for women’s head coaching jobs at institutions that I feel are a good fit for me,” Miller said. “I’m going to continue to apply for men’s college hockey team’s openings and I’m reaching out to apply to NHL teams.”
UMD Athletic Director Josh Berlo was not available for a comment.