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Monday hearing key in Minnesota Duluth coaches' suit

The future of an $18 million discrimination lawsuit brought against the University of Minnesota Duluth by three former women's sports coaches will be on the line in a Minneapolis courtroom Monday, Oct. 30.

The university's attorneys will argue that former women's hockey coach Shannon Miller, former softball coach Jen Banford and former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles have failed to produce evidence that they were forced from their positions due to age, gender, sexual orientation or national origin.

They want a federal judge to grant summary judgment, denying the women's claims and putting an end to a nearly three-year saga.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs will argue that the university has ignored ample evidence of a culture of hostility that led to the non-renewal of five-time national championship-winning coach Miller and the subsequent forced resignations of Banford and Wiles.

They say a jury should be allowed to hear the facts and issue a verdict.

The man tasked with settling the dispute is U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz, a Duluth native nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2004.

The case has been on hiatus for several months, due in part to the departure of the case's original judge, Richard Kyle, who had to step aside for a medical leave.

But attorneys for both sides expressed confidence ahead of the high-stakes hearing, which will either bring an end to two years of litigation or pave the way for a trial.

"We filed a motion for summary judgment because we believe we have a strong case based on the facts and the law," said Tim Pramas, senior associate general counsel for the University of Minnesota. "We stand by our belief that the claims of discrimination are unfounded."

Dan Siegel, an Oakland, Calif.-based attorney for the plaintiffs, will argue for the case to proceed.

"In their motion, the Board of Regents presents a tremendously selective set of facts," he said. "However, they do not address the ample evidence that shows discriminatory and unequal treatment, which, simply put, needs to be addressed."

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.

Miller, 53, was informed in December 2014 that her contract was not being renewed after 16 years at the helm of the hockey program. Banford, 36, who doubled as the women's hockey director of operations, and Wiles, 48, submitted their resignations within the next six months.

The women filed suit in September 2015, claiming dozens of incidents they said created a hostile work environment and alleged disparities in how they and their teams were treated compared to other coaches and teams at UMD. All three are openly gay; Miller and Banford are Canadian natives.

UMD initially stated that Miller's departure was a financial consideration, but has argued in court documents that declining competitive success and academic performance from her team also contributed to the decision. The university maintains that it intended to retain Banford and Wiles, and that their resignations were voluntary.

Attorneys have said a potential trial would take about three weeks; however, the university also has filed a motion seeking a separate trial for each plaintiff if the summary judgment motion is denied.

A court-ordered settlement conference in July failed to yield a resolution.