In response to what attorney Dan Siegel called “a purge of women coaches at the University of Minnesota Duluth,’’ three former coaches sued Monday in U.S. District Court alleging discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, age and national origin.
Shannon Miller, Jen Banford and Annette Wiles — former Bulldogs women’s hockey, softball and women’s basketball coaches, respectively — are openly gay, and all claim their gender and sexual orientation played a part in their departure from UMD. In addition to the discrimination claim, the suit alleges the school created a hostile work environment, violated equal pay laws and Title IX principles and retaliated against the women.
The suit, filed against the U Board of Regents, demands a jury trial and asks for back pay, future pay and damages for emotional distress. UMD Chancellor Lendley C. Black denied the school discriminated and expressed certainty that UMD would succeed in refuting the claims.
“We are committed to fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion here at UMD,’’ Black said. “I’m quite confident that throughout this process, it will be made clear that our decisions were made in the best interests of UMD. I’m confident we made the right decisions.’’
UMD informed Miller and Banford in December that their contracts would not be renewed. Wiles resigned in June, citing a hostile and discriminatory environment in the athletic department.
Miller said Monday there are too many men “with 19th-century attitudes’’ in leadership positions at UMD and called on university leaders to make changes.
“We are shedding some light on some very critical issues,’’ she added. “Sexism and homophobia are alive and well at the University of Minnesota.’’
Details of allegations
Siegel called the case the strongest he has ever seen involving Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination at institutions that receive federal funding.
“We believe we have a university here that has a very serious problem with gender issues and LGBT issues,’’ said Siegel, a California-based attorney. “We expect this will be a very important case in the state of Minnesota that will have an impact on the treatment of women and LGBT people at the University of Minnesota.’’
The coaches claim that UMD athletic director Josh Berlo and others discriminated against them and their programs. Among the allegations:
• Last December, Berlo asked Miller to resign or retire. When she refused, he declined to renew her contract and said publicly it was a “financially driven decision,” though she was never asked to take a pay cut and was paid $93,241 less than men’s hockey coach Scott Sandelin. The suit also notes the women’s hockey program received substantially fewer resources than the men’s team.
• All three coaches were treated with hostility or disrespect, and university officials did not take action. Miller said mail was stolen from her university mailbox, and someone replaced her office-door nameplate with a note that read “dyke.” According to the suit, athletic department staff undermined Banford with her players, and one staff member said “I would punch her.” The suit also said Wiles was “shunned and excluded” after publicly coming out as gay in 2013.
• The suit alleges Berlo frequently made comments such as “there are too many Canadians around here” and “I’ve never seen so many damn Canadians” near Miller and Banford, both born in Canada.
In an interview Monday, Black reiterated his support for Berlo. He denied the coaches’ allegations that school administrators did not investigate or address their complaints, saying issues brought to his attention were “handled in an appropriate way.” When asked whether he was concerned that UMD could have to pay significant damages to the coaches, he said the school stands by its actions.
Dean Johnson, chairman of the Board of Regents, issued a statement in response to a request for comment. “As the legal process unfolds, the board remains committed to the values of equality and inclusion across the University system,’’ it said. “Our focus is on upholding our institution’s high standards, and supporting an environment where diversity is embraced.’’
The lawsuit does not ask for a specific amount of monetary damages. But Siegel won judgments for two fired women coaches of $19.1 million and $5.85 million in similar gender-equity suits against Fresno State University in 2007. Those are believed to be the largest awards in Title IX-related suits.
Miller won five NCAA championships with Duluth and appeared in 11 Frozen Fours in her 16 seasons. In December, with her team ranked among the nation’s top 10, Miller was told by Berlo and Black that her contract — and those of her three-person, all-female staff — would not be renewed. Berlo later said the reason was that UMD could not afford her $207,000 base salary, which made her the nation’s highest-paid women’s hockey coach.
Miller’s critics pointed to a downturn in the program. The Bulldogs have not qualified for the NCAA tournament since 2011, and their record against their primary WCHA rivals — the Gophers, Wisconsin and North Dakota — is 3-26-7 over the past three seasons. Miller had one victory against the Gophers in her final four seasons.
Siegel said when Miller hired him several months ago, he called the University of Minnesota’s legal staff and was told the university was not interested in discussing the case. He also said he expects to file a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of several female athletes at UMD.
Miller said Monday that she fears her college coaching career is now over because of this controversy. She applied for the Ohio State job, she said, but did not receive an interview.
In addition to her 10 seasons of coaching softball, Banford was also the director of women’s hockey operations during that time. She was the conference softball coach of the year in 2013. Under Wiles, the Bulldogs qualified for the postseason the past five seasons and went 109-86 during her seven seasons.