Three former University of Minnesota-Duluth coaches announced a lawsuit on Monday against the Regents of the University of Minnesota claiming discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and national origin.

Former women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller, former women’s softball coach and women’s hockey operations director Jen Banford, and former women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles, all say they faced discrimination because they are women, are from Canada, and are LGBT. Miller was forced to resign in late 2014. Banford’s contract was not renewed in 2015 and then she says it was offered again after backlash from Miller’s dismissal. Wiles resigned in June 2015 after what she called a hostile work environment.

“Sexism and homophobia are alive and well at the University of Minnesota,” Miller said at a press conference on Monday.

The complaint contains a broad range of allegations of disparate treatment of the three coaches. Some of those were overt.

According to the complaint, Miller alleges anti-Canadian sentiment in the athletics department:

During her tenure as the head women’s hockey coach, Miller regularly experienced hostility toward Canadians by University officials. For example, Athletic Director Berlo frequently remarked that “there are too many Canadians around here.”

The department was also allegedly unresponsive to hate mail directed at Miller:

On April 30, 2010, Miller began receiving harassing mail in her work mail box. On several occasions from 2010 to 2011, Miller reported complaints to the Human Resources department, including Human Resources Director Judith Karon. For example, when Miller began receiving hate mail, such as several pieces of mail calling Miller a “dyke” and suggesting that she “go” home, emails saying “goodbye” and “the end,” and mail containing clippings from newspapers showing the disparity between attendance at women’s hockey games versus men’s hockey games and with Miller’s salary handwritten on them, she reported these despicable acts to Karon. No remedial action was taken by Karon or the University.
During Miller’s in-person visits with Karon from 2010 through 2011, Miller shared her concerns regarding a male co-worker who referred to her as a “dyke” and who told several co-workers that he would be the one to bring Miller down. Karon and the University took no remedial action

Banford alleges that the department told her that they were not renewing her contract, and that after community outrage over Miller’s dismissal, the athletics department backtracked and offered to renew part of her contract. But only after telling other staff and athletes that she was being dismissed:

On December 11, 2014, only two days after the University’s notice to Miller that her coaching contract would not be renewed, Banford received an email from the University’s Assistant Athletic Director, Jay Finnerty, attaching a letter from Athletic Director Berlo which provided notice that Banford’s contracts as head softball coach and part-time director of women’s hockey operations would not be renewed, concluding “[t]hank you for your services and my best wishes on your endeavors.” 60. Neither Jay Finnerty, who was Banford’s supervisor, nor Associate Athletic Director Karen Stromme, nor Josh Berlo ever called Banford to notify her that she would be receiving a non-renewal letter for either the head softball coach position or the director of hockey operations position

On January 18, 2015, ESPNw, a division of ESPN directed at female fans and women’s sports issues, broke the national story regarding Banford’s termination as Minnesota-Duluth’s head softball coach. In that story, Berlo told the ESPNw reporter that Banford’s belief that she would not be retained as head softball coach was mistaken and that the University was working to keep Banford as the head softball coach, that Banford “is our softball coach,” and that she “was only notified relative to the position of women’s hockey.” 71. These statements were false and directly contradicted Berlo’s December 11 letter to Banford, which plainly stated that Banford’s “appointment as the Director of Hockey Operations/Head Softball Coach 38154, 12 months (A), Annual Renewal Appointment, 100% will end on June 14, 2015.” On information and belief, the University reversed course and decided to attempt to retain Banford after negative publicity arising from Shannon Miller’s non-renewal

Banford also noted several instances where she and Miller were excluded from staff events:

After the summer 2006 incident in which Banford and Miller were excluded from a University golfing event, in the spring of 2007 Banford was again excluded from a fundraising event held in Proctor, Minnesota. As the women’s head softball coach, Banford submitted her name and timely paid for the event, but was told when she arrived that there was no place for her to sit.

Annette Wiles alleges that after she came out as guest speaker at a National Coming Out Day Luncheon, the climate at the athletics department changed:

Wiles was the keynote speaker for the GLBT National Coming Out Day luncheon on Minnesota-Duluth’s campus in October of 2013. This event is a wellattended and highly visible event on campus. Wiles planned to come out publicly as a lesbian. 101. Wiles informed Berlo of her plans and asked if he would like to attend the event with her. When asked to attend, Berlo responded that he would be “out of town that day.” 102. However, on the day of the event, Wiles passed Berlo’s office and noticed that he was sitting at his desk. Once again, Wiles invited Berlo to attend and informed him that she had an extra seat at her table and that he was welcome to join her. This time, Berlo responded that he was “not available for that event.” 103. A few days after that event, Wiles was in the Athletic Department workroom along with Berlo. At that time, Berlo asked Wiles, “Did you give it a lot of thought before you decided to speak?” Wiles understood Berlo’s remark to mean he was questioning Wiles’ wisdom in deciding to speak at the luncheon because it would negatively affect her career.

The University released a statement saying it will defend itself in court: “We continue to refute the allegations and claims of discrimination and will aggressively defend ourselves in the lawsuit. I continue to stand behind the athletics department under the leadership of Josh Berlo, and the direction of UMD athletics,” Northland’s NewsCenter says.

“We believe we have a university here that has a very serious problem with gender issues and LGBT issues,’’ Dan Siegel, the trio’s attorney said, according to the Star Tribune. “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.’’

Here’s a copy of the complaint:

Download (PDF, 358KB)

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