Shannon Miller was "completely vindicated" in her lawsuit against the University of Minnesota Duluth, but a federal jury's monetary award to the former women's hockey coach was "shockingly excessive," a judge said Friday, Sept. 6.
U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz slashed $2.25 million from the $4.21 million verdict, but also granted Miller's request for nearly $2.5 million in attorneys' fees, expenses and interest.
Schiltz said the $3 million awarded to Miller for past emotional distress "grossly exceeds" legal standards. He ruled that $750,000 is the most the panel reasonably could have granted.
The judge gave Miller until Sept. 20 to either accept the reduced award or opt for a new trial on the limited issue of damages.
If she accepts the reduced award, Miller would stand to receive a total of $1.96 million. Meanwhile, with the additional fees, UMD's financial burden would increase to $4.45 million.
A jury in March 2018 found UMD officials liable for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation in the December 2014 decision not to offer Miller a new contract after 16 seasons, which included five national championships with the Bulldogs. She still stands to receive $744,832 awarded by the jury for past lost wages and benefits and $461,278 awarded by Schiltz after the trial for future economic benefits.
"We are pleased that the judge partially granted our motion and reduced the jury's awarded amount for past non-economic loss," Tim Pramas, senior associate general counsel for the University of Minnesota, said in a statement. "With respect to the other aspects of the decision, we are still analyzing the judge's decision and the various legal options available to us."
Representatives of Miller could not immediately be reached for comment.
Jury's findings supported
Schiltz, in the 55-page order released late Friday, denied the university's motion to reverse the verdict or grant an entirely new trial.
UMD's post-trial motion contended that Miller never suffered an "adverse employment action" and that the evidence presented at the two-week trial did not support the verdict, as well as citing other alleged procedural violations.
But Schiltz said there was ample evidence and no legal error. The judge said it was clear Miller was a "world-class hockey coach" who saw "markedly different treatment" than men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin during their overlapping tenures. He also cited the university's inconsistent explanations for MIller's non-renewal — first citing finances and later performance, among other factors.
"Given the shock in the hockey community about Miller’s firing, the disparate treatment of Miller and Sandelin, UMD’s shifting rationales and the mismatch between UMD’s actions before and claims during trial, the jury was entitled to find that UMD’s proffered explanation was pretextual, which in turn gave the jury a sufficient basis to find discrimination and retaliation," Schiltz wrote.
However, Schiltz said Miller was almost "too successful in recovering damages for UMD's unlawful behavior," noting that the emotional distress award pertained only to a 32-month period between the end of Miller's contract and the start of her trial.
"The court finds that the award of $3 million is shockingly excessive," the judge wrote.
Even the $750,000 sum approved by Schiltz probably exceeds any other award for non-economic loss ever upheld by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an employment case, he said. UMD argued that any distress liability should be capped at $100,000.
But Miller's case is unique, Schiltz said, citing the high-profile nature of the case and the limited employment opportunities available in Division I women's hockey.
"Miller’s termination was extremely public; it quickly became known not only in her community, but around the world," the judge wrote. "The termination separated her from a program that she had built from the ground up and in which she had a huge emotional investment. And she perceived the firing as a shocking betrayal of the loyalty that she had shown to UMD for many years."
The offer for Miller to accept $750,000 in lieu of a new trial on the issue of emotional distress is a practice known as a "remittitur," which a judge can order when a verdict is found to be excessive.
Fees, interest add up
The bulk of the additional $2.5 million awarded Friday will go to two law firms that represented Miller — Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta in Oakland, Calif., and Fafinski Mark & Johnson in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Schiltz granted $2.33 million in fees based on a calculation of approximately 6,300 hours of work from a number of attorneys and paralegals, rejecting arguments from university representatives who claimed the amount to be excessive.
"There was nothing 'limited' about Miller’s success," the judge wrote. "She was completely vindicated on her claim that UMD’s decision not to renew her contract constituted illegal discrimination and retaliation."
Schiltz also awarded $99,445.55 in legal expenses, as well as $71,529.14 in prejudgment interest on the back pay award. Post-judgment interest also will apply, he said.
If Miller agrees to accept the $750,000 remittitur, Schiltz would formally enter judgment, bringing a close to the district court proceedings. If she rejects it, a new trial date would be scheduled.
Judgment would allow both parties to consider various appeals to the 8th Circuit. UMD could ask the appeals court to reverse the verdict, order a new trial or reduce the damages and/or fees, among other options.
Miller's attorneys also have indicated they could consider an appeal of Schiltz's February 2018 summary judgment order dismissing claims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation Miller, former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles and former softball coach and women's hockey operations director Jen Banford.
Schiltz said that may have been the "strongest" element of the case, but ruled that he lacked jurisdiction to hear it in federal court under precedent from the 8th Circuit. However, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to soon settle the nationwide legal dispute over whether sexual orientation is covered by the Civil Rights Act.
Earlier this week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling dismissing a state court lawsuit filed by the three women in March 2018 on the same issue. The court found that the suit was filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations.