DULUTH, Minn. — A federal judge on Thursday dismissed the remaining claims filed against the University of Minnesota Duluth by two former women’s sports coaches.
In granting the university’s motion for summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz said a reasonable jury could not conclude that Jen Banford and Annette Wiles lost their jobs as a result of being openly gay.
Banford, the softball coach and women’s hockey operations director, and Wiles, the women’s basketball coach, both left UMD in the months after administrators controversially decided not to renew the contract of longtime women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller in December 2014.
Banford and Wiles contended that they were subjected to discrimination and a hostile work environment on the basis of their sexual orientation when they first filed suit with Miller in September 2015. Their claims were initially dismissed by Schiltz in February 2018, but revived by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2019.
Schiltz, who heard renewed arguments in December, said the evidence was clear that UMD sought to retain both coaches and that they left of their own accord.
“Despite having ample justification for non‐renewing Wiles, an openly gay woman, UMD ultimately chose to retain her,” Schiltz wrote in a 28-page order. “UMD also chose to retain Banford as the softball coach, despite the fact that she was openly gay.”
‘Purge list’ deemed irrelevant to claims
The women cited a variety of actions and comments from administrators that they said supported their claims of hostility. In particular, they described an alleged attempt to “purge” six lesbian coaches from the department shortly after Josh Berlo was hired as athletic director in 2013.
But Schiltz said the record shows that Berlo continued to employ three other gay women — at least two of whom he knew to be gay — when Miller was let go. Additionally, the judge said, there is no evidence that Banford and Wiles even knew of internal communications about the alleged purge list until after they left.
“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.
Additionally, the women cited exclusion from meetings and committees, hate mail and disparaging comments from others in the office. But the judge said the myriad complaints were “insufficiently severe to establish a hostile environment,” noting the alleged incidents were spaced out over many years, typical of many workplace disputes and/or not directly tied to sex or sexual orientation.
Banford treated ‘better’ than counterpart
When Miller was denied an extension after winning five national championships in 16 seasons, Banford and two assistant coaches also received letters of non-renewal. The hockey job comprised 40% of her contractual duties, with the remaining 60% tied to her softball job.
Banford, who had been with the school for 10 years, claimed she was led to believe that she was being eliminated entirely, but UMD officials said they always intended to offer her a new contract as softball coach. They did, but she rejected it; an attorney later called it a “nonequivalent offer” with a “salary that was even remotely comparable.”
Schiltz agreed with university officials, who said it was standard for top assistants to be let go when there is a change in head coaches.
“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 more for her softball duties than it had paid her for her softball duties under the previous contract.”
Schiltz noted that Miller was able to make a case that she received less-favorable treatment than her closest comparator, men’s hockey coach Scott Sandelin. But the judge said the same was not true with Banford, who was treated “better” than baseball coach Bob Rients.
“Specifically, the base salary that UMD offered to Banford for the softball‐only position was actually higher than the base salary paid to Rients,” Schiltz noted.
Wiles did not face ‘intolerable’ situation
Wiles announced her resignation in June 2015, having led the Bulldogs for seven years. She subsequently cited an unhealthy work environment, which she claims started after she spoke at a National Coming Out Day luncheon in 2013, alleging Berlo turned “cold and hostile.”
The university, however, said Berlo provided support to Wiles and sought to help her as she dealt with some personal struggles — even after she was harshly criticized by student-athletes in a 2014 survey.
UMD did not seek to negotiate a new contract with Wiles, but instead allowed an automatic one-year extension to kick in by not providing a non-renewal letter by December 2014, as her contract carried a clause for a six-month notice period.
An attorney later contended that Berlo simply “missed the deadline” to fire Wiles, as the athletic director was too focused on terminating Miller and handling the resulting firestorm. But UMD officials noted Berlo had intentions of placing Wiles on a performance-improvement plan aimed at keeping her employed as basketball coach.
“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 in his order. “But such a situation cannot be characterized as “so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.’”
Mixed results after half-decade of litigation
Barring a request for review by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which would need to be filed within 14 days — Thursday’s ruling puts an end to more than five years of litigation at the state and federal levels.
“We believe that our motion speaks for itself and presented a compelling case for the judge to grant our summary judgment motion,” UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said in a statement to the News Tribune.
Banford had no further comment on next steps and said she was caught unaware of the judge’s decision.
“Again, just like last time, on the dismissal of my claims, I have not heard from any of the three law firms representing me in this case. I have only heard from the Minneapolis and Duluth media and many friends since Judge Schiltz’s decision went public today. Judge Schiltz’s decision and the behavior of my attorneys is very disappointing,” Banford said.
Miller and Banford, who are in a relationship, have relocated to Palm Springs, Calif., and were operating a pedal pub business. Wiles is living in Topeka, Kan., and serves as director of a public schools sports complex.
Miller prevailed in her litigation, winning a finding of sex discrimination and retaliation when she faced a federal jury in Duluth in March 2018. She later settled all claims with the university for $4.53 million, calling it a “huge victory” for women who have faced discrimination in athletics.