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Minnesota Duluth, Miller reach $4.5 million settlement

Shannon Miller (left) and attorney Jane Brunner walk to the federal courthouse in Duluth for her discrimination trial against the University of Minnesota Duluth in March 2018. (File / News Tribune)

DULUTH -- Former University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey coach Shannon Miller and her attorneys will receive $4.53 million in a settlement with the University of Minnesota Duluth.

An agreement to resolve more than four years of litigation was finalized this week. It includes payments of approximately $2.1 million to Miller and $2.43 million for her attorneys.

"I’m very happy to have a signed document from the university and to be wrapping up the federal piece of this," Miller said "I have yet to receive a dollar, so I think it will feel a little more real to me once I actually receive some financial compensation for what I've been through. But I'm very happy right now."

With the agreement, Miller and UMD will drop their ongoing appeals of a federal verdict that awarded Miller and her attorneys roughly the same amounts. While a jury found UMD liable for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation, the agreement specifically allows the university to maintain a denial of any wrongdoing or violation of law.

"UMD welcomes the conclusion of this matter," spokeswoman Lynne Williams said. "We look forward to continuing support of our students in and out of the classroom, including their athletics endeavors."

The settlement does not affect Miller's two co-plaintiffs, former softball coach and women's hockey operations director Jen Banford and former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles. They are continuing to appeal the dismissal of their case at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Earlier this fall, UMD was formally ordered to pay Miller $1.96 million in damages, along with more than $2.53 million in attorneys' fees, expenses and interest, after a jury found UMD liable in the December 2014 decision not to offer her a new contract after 16 seasons, including five national championships, as the only head coach in the history of the women's hockey program.

Miller on Sept. 30 accepted a reduced federal award that includes $750,000 for past emotional distress, $744,832 for past lost wages and benefits and $461,278 for future economic benefits. She declined a new trial after a judge upheld the jury's findings but slashed an "excessive" $4.21 million verdict.

The existence of a tentative settlement agreement was first disclosed in court documents on Oct. 4, though it still had to be put into writing and formally authorized by the parties.

With the settlement, Miller and the university will drop their ongoing appeals to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Miller had challenged issues including the dismissal of her sexual-orientation discrimination claims, the order sharply reducing her award and an order denying her motion for reinstatement to her former position. UMD had appealed the judgment in Miller's favor, the award of front pay and an order denying the university's motion to overturn the verdict or grant a new trial.

The Minnesota Supreme Court earlier this month declined to review a decision dismissing a state lawsuit filed by the three women, ending litigation at that level. The coaches had sued in state court after their claims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation were dismissed from federal court.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz opined that the orientation allegations may have been the "strongest" element of the women's case, but said he lacked jurisdiction to hear those claims under 8th Circuit precedent. But that issue is now the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case that is expected to have major ramifications for Banford and Wiles.

The nation's highest court is expected to rule by June on the issue of whether the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In the meantime, the 8th Circuit has agreed to hold off on further proceedings in Banford and Wiles' appeal.

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