Hockey Coach Prevails in Sex Discrimination Case and is Awarded Huge Front-Pay Damages

Former University of Minnesota-Duluth women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller was one of the most successful women’s hockey coaches of all time, having won 11 Frozen Four games and five NCAA Division I national championships with the team.  However, after her team struggled, Miller was informed that her coaching contract with the university would not be renewed.

After suing, and winning her sex discrimination claim under Title VII, Miller was awarded $744,832 in back pay and $3,000,000 in other damages.  Following the award, Miller moved to be reinstated to her former position, or to be provided front pay in lieu of reinstatement.

This motion allowed the District Court to go through an in-depth analysis of front pay for the plaintiff that could be very useful to litigators and employers alike.

First, the court made clear that “reinstatement is the preferred remedy,” and front pay should only be awarded “when extraordinary circumstances render reinstatement impractical or impossible.”  However, if the position is occupied by a replacement who was not culpable in the termination, it is not reasonable to reinstate the employee.  After finding that reinstating Miller would displace not only her replacement but a number of her replacement’s assistant coaches and staff, the court found that front-pay was the most appropriate remedy.

Given that finding, it was up to the court to determine if the front-pay awarded by the jury was reasonable under the circumstances.  It laid out the factors for the determination of front pay:

  1. Plaintiff’s age;
  2. Length of the plaintiff’s employment with the defendant;
  3. Likelihood that the plaintiff’s employment would have continued absent the unlawful discrimination;
  4. The length of time it took or will take the plaintiff to secure comparable employment;
  5. The plaintiff’s work and life expectancy;
  6. Whether the plaintiff was an at-will employee; and
  7. The plaintiff’s ability to work.

At least two factors were working against the university: The plaintiff was only around 50 when her contract was not renewed, and her current job as a professional women’s hockey coach only paid her $30,000 a year.  Therefore, the plaintiff was able to mitigate damages by acquiring alternative employment, but the employment compensation was not nearly enough to offset the amount she would have been paid as a coach of a Division I hockey program.

UMD attempted to say that other work was available for Miller at the Division II or III level, or as an assistant coach.  However, the court determined such moves would act as a demotion for Miller, and the “law does not require Miller to accept a demotion.”

What helped the university was the fact that being a Division I team sport coach is “a notoriously precarious position in which individuals rarely enjoy tenures of 30 years or more.”  In the end, the Court sided with the jury’s original award and found that had Miller not been discriminated against, she would have remained employed as a head coach at least until June of 2020 – or around five years from the time of her termination.  For “arguably one of the most successful college hockey coaches of all time,” the limiting of front pay to five years from the date of termination could be considered a small victory for the employer in what ended up being over a $4,000,000 recovery for the plaintiff.

This was obviously a difficult case for the university, but there are lessons for employers to learn.  First, the best way to keep from losing a discrimination case is to avoid discriminatory practices.  Second, if you’re already past the point where the discriminatory act occurred, you must do your best to mitigate the damages to which a plaintiff may be entitled, whether it be through reinstatement, settlement, or re-employment services.  The costs of discrimination can be incredibly high, and employers must do their best to avoid it.  If you’re facing a possible discrimination claim or have questions about employment decisions, contact the Wiley Law Office, for advice that works.