Judge Dismisses Duluth Coaches' Discrimination Lawsuit

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A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against the University of Minnesota Duluth while saying that a reasonable jury could not conclude that two former coaches lost their jobs as a result of being openly gay.

The Duluth News Tribune reported Thursday that U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz dismissed the claims filed against UMD by Jen Banford, the former softball coach and women’s hockey operations director, and Annette Wiles, the former women’s basketball coach. According to the Tribune, Banford and Wiles left their jobs soon after December 2014, when UMD officials didn’t renew the contract of women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller.

Related content: Ex-Coaches Seek $18M in Discrimination Suit Damages

When initially filing a lawsuit in September 2015, Banford and Wiles contended they were subjected to discrimination and a hostile work environment on the basis of their sexual orientation. The claims were dismissed by Schiltz in 2018, then revived by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2019.

Related content: Appeals Court Dismisses Coaches’ Discrimination Suit

After hearing renewed arguments in December, Schiltz said this week the evidence was clear that the coaches left their jobs of their own accord. The women cited exclusion from meetings and committees, hate mail and disparaging comments, while Schiltz said they were “insufficiently severe to establish a hostile environment.”

“Despite having ample justification for non-renewing Wiles, an openly gay woman, UMD ultimately chose to retain her,” Schiltz wrote. “UMD also chose to retain Banford as the softball coach, despite the fact that she was openly gay.”

The former coaches alleged that there was an attempt to “purge” six lesbian UMD coaches after Josh Berlo was hired as athletic director in 2013.

“While such evidence could theoretically bolster a hostile-environment claim, the plaintiff must still point to evidence of severe harassment or other misconduct of which she was aware,” Schiltz wrote.

Banford and two assistant coaches received letters of non-renewal at the same time Miller was denied a contract extension. Banford said she believed she was being eliminated entirely, but UMD officials offered her a new contract for softball only. She rejected what an attorney called a “nonequivalent offer.”

“Banford has insufficient evidence that UMD was motivated by her sex or sexual orientation when it non-renewed her hockey position, which was the reason for the reduction in salary,” the judge wrote. “In other words, if UMD acted lawfully in not renewing Banford’s hockey position, it could not possibly have constructively discharged her from her softball position when it offered to renew her contract and to pay her ore for her softball duties than it had paid her for her softball duties under the previous contract.”

Rather than seeking a new contract with Wiles, UMD officials allowed an automatic one-year extension to kick in in December 2014. UMD officials said that Berlo planned to place Wiles on a performance-improvement plan.

“The court does not doubt that UMD’s decision not to offer Wiles a contract caused her a great deal of anxiety, especially in light of the harsh criticism that she had received from her players,” Schiltz wrote. “But such a situation cannot be characterized as ‘so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.’”

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