By John Roemer
Daniel M. Siegel
Siegel traveled to Duluth, Minnesota to represent an accomplished female hockey coach fired from her job at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He knew going in that his lesbian client faced a socially conservative jury pool. “We were warned that jurors in Duluth are not particularly friendly to plaintiffs or to LGBTQ people, and a large verdict was unlikely,” Siegel said.
Case law in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Minnesota, does not extend anti-discrimination protections to people based on their sexual orientation. So the federal lawsuit Siegel was pursuing was limited to gender bias and retaliation claims.
Nonetheless he prevailed, winning $3.7 million for client Shannon Miller following an eight-day trial in federal court. A unanimous jury of eight women and four men took four hours to find that the university discriminated against Miller on the basis of her gender and retaliated against her for making Title IX complaints by deciding not to offer her a new contract.
Miller held hands with her partner, Jen Banford, as U.S. District Judge Patrick J. Schiltz read the verdict on March 15. At a news conference on the courthouse steps, Siegel said of the outcome, “It’s a real rebuke to the leadership of UMD, and to the athletic department in particular. I hope it’s a new day for this university and this community as women all over the world are saying, Time’s up.'”
Miller’s women’s hockey teams, the UMD Bulldogs, won five Division 1 national championships over 16 years before she was terminated.
The jury awarded Miller her requested $744,832 in lost wages and $3 million for emotional distress. Schiltz has yet to decide on future lost wage claims and attorney fees. Miller v. Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, 15-cv-3740 (D. Minn., filed Sept. 28, 2015).
A state court suit under Minnesota’s strong civil rights law is next in the works, Siegel said. Miller and Banford – a former university softball coach – and a third woman in the university’s athletic department claim the school discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation.
“We had a strong trial judge who instructed the jury to be impartial and fair to both sides,” Siegel said. “The university’s witnesses were extremely inconsistent on why they had terminated Coach Miller, and she was a terrific witness on her own behalf. She was highly regarded in the community.” It likely didn’t hurt that Miller is a former police officer.
”All of that trumped any homophobia,” Siegel said. “And it shows how the world is changing and that people realize it. LGBTQ rights aren’t just for San Francisco. They’re for everyone’s neighbors.”
– John Roemer