The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday on the dismissal of a state lawsuit filed against the University of Minnesota Duluth by three former women’s sports coaches.
A district judge in October threw out the case brought by former women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller, former women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles and former softball coach and women’s hockey operations director Jen Banford.
Their complaint alleged discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, creation of a hostile work environment and reprisal under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, as well as violations of the Equal Pay for Equal Work Law and the Minnesota Whistleblower Act.
Judge Daniel Moreno, of Hennepin County, determined in October that the lawsuit — filed in March 2018, the same day Miller prevailed in federal court — was brought after the statute of limitations expired. The judge also said Miller could not seek additional damages based largely on the same facts that were presented to the federal jury.
Dan Siegel, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, argued Wednesday that Moreno erred by applying a “mechanic, harsh understanding” of the law. He said the state of limitations should have been “tolled” — placed on hold — as the claims were initially litigated, and ultimately dismissed, in federal court.
“We didn’t file two cases because that’s a decision that would burden the courts, create the possibility of inconsistent rulings and — in our case, particularly, representing plaintiffs who were victimized by discrimination and are not people of means — to burden them with the costs of two separate lawsuits did not seem like a necessary decision,” Siegel told the three-judge panel.
Tim Pramas, senior associate general counsel for the university, contended that the district judge properly applied the state of limitations based on “long-established and on-point legal precedent” from both the U.S. and Minnesota supreme courts.
“The plaintiffs concede that their decision to proceed in federal court was a tactical, deliberate and strategic decision,” Pramas said. “There are consequences to that decision. They decided to pursue their claims exclusively in federal court. And after those claims were disposed of, they now decided to try to relitigate, again, in an untimely way, issues that were resolved in federal court.”
The review is being handled by judges Renee Worke, Lucinda Jesson and Diane Bratvold. They have 90 days to issue their decision.
The issue could also be revived in federal court, as the U.S. Supreme Court has announced it will consider this fall whether the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz had called those claims the “strongest” element of the women’s case, but said he lacked jurisdiction to hear the issue under existing precedent.
As that decision looms, Schiltz is weighing several post-trial motions, including UMD’s request to reverse the verdict or grant a new trial and Miller’s demand for nearly $3 million in attorneys’ fees.
Miller was awarded $4.21 million in damages after the federal jury found UMD liable for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation in the December 2014 decision not to offer her a new contract after 16 seasons.
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