Miller v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Minn., A18-2140

CourtCourt of Appeals of Minnesota
Writing for the CourtWorke, Judge
PartiesShannon Miller, et al., Appellants, v. The Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, Respondent.
Decision Date03 September 2019
Docket NumberA18-2140

Shannon Miller, et al., Appellants,
The Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, Respondent.



September 3, 2019

This opinion will be unpublished and may not be cited except as provided by Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2018).

Worke, Judge

Hennepin County District Court
File No. 27-CV-18-4262

Donald Chance Mark, Jr., Tyler P. Brimmer, Fafinski Mark & Johnson, P.A., Eden Prairie, Minnesota; and

Dan Siegel (pro hac vice), Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta, Oakland, California (for appellants)

Jeanette M. Bazis, Katherine M. Swenson, Greene Espel PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and

Douglas R. Peterson, General Counsel, Timothy J. Pramas, Senior Associate General Counsel, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)

Considered and decided by Jesson, Presiding Judge; Worke, Judge; and Bratvold, Judge.

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WORKE, Judge

Appellants challenge the dismissal of their claims, arguing that the district court erred by: (1) declining to equitably toll the statute of limitations; (2) dismissing their claims under the Minnesota whistleblower act (MWA), Minn. Stat. § 181.932 (2018), as barred by the exclusivity provision of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. § 363A.04 (2018); and (3) alternatively, dismissing two of their claims based on res judicata and collateral estoppel. By notice of related appeal (NORA), respondent challenges the district court's determination that one appellant was not collaterally estopped. We affirm.


Appellants Shannon Miller, Annette Wiles, and Jen Banford (collectively the coaches) coached at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (the university). Miller coached the women's hockey team, Wiles coached the women's basketball team, and Banford coached the softball team and served as Miller's director of hockey operations.

In December 2014, the university informed Miller and Banford of its intention to not renew their contracts. Wiles alleged that she was forced to resign in June 2015 due to a hostile work environment. The coaches initiated actions against respondent the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (the department). The coaches alleged, among other things, that they were subjected to disparate treatment on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation. On May 26, 2015,

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the department informed Miller of her right to sue in state court within 90 days, and informed her that she "may also be able to bring claims under the [MHRA] in an action filed in federal court." Banford and Wiles received their right-to-sue letters on September 16 and October 20, 2015, respectively. The coaches did not initiate proceedings in state court, and instead filed suit in federal district court on September 28, 2015 (the federal action).

In the federal action, the coaches brought state-law claims against the university for discrimination, hostile work environment, and reprisal under the MHRA, Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.01-363A.44 (2018); for violation of the state Equal Pay for Equal Work Law, Minn. Stat. §§ 181.66-.71 (2018); and for violation of the MWA. They also brought federal claims for discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation, and violation of the federal Equal Pay Act. In its answer the university raised the affirmative defense that it was immune to suit pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment.

On February 1, 2018, the federal district court granted the university's motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of the coaches' state-law claims without prejudice because the university was immune to suit in federal court on state-law claims under the Eleventh Amendment.

On March 15, 2018, the coaches filed their state-law claims in district court. The university moved to dismiss, and the district court granted the motion. The district court dismissed the coaches' MHRA and equal-pay claims as untimely, and declined the coaches' request that it equitably toll the statutes of limitations. The district court

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dismissed the coaches' MWA claims because the exclusivity provision of the MHRA precluded the coaches from bringing a claim under the MWA upon the same factual basis.

Finally, despite dismissing all of the coaches' claims, the district court analyzed whether collateral estoppel and res judicata provided alternative bases to support the dismissals. Within that framework, the district court determined that, based upon the federal court's rulings on their federal claims, Wiles was collaterally estopped from asserting her MWA and equal-pay claims; Banford was not collaterally estopped from asserting either claim; and Miller was collaterally estopped from asserting her equal-pay claim, and her MWA claim was precluded on the basis of res judicata. The coaches appealed, and the university filed its NORA, challenging the district court's alternative determination that Banford was not collaterally estopped.


Equitable tolling

The coaches argue that the district court erred by declining to equitably toll the statutes of limitations while their MHRA and state equal-pay claims were pending in federal court. Appellate courts review equitable determinations for an abuse of discretion. City of North Oaks v. Sarpal, 797 N.W.2d 18, 23 (Minn. 2011). "[T]he standard we have used to toll statutes of limitations is necessarily a high one." Sanchez v. State, 816 N.W.2d 550, 561 (Minn. 2012).1

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Under the MHRA, "[a] claim of an unfair discriminatory practice must be brought as a civil action . . . or filed in a charge with the commissioner within one year after the occurrence of the practice." Minn. Stat. § 363A.28, subd. 3(a). The coaches received letters from the department informing them that, because they intended to bring private actions, they had 90 days to commence their action in state court, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 363A.33, subd. 1(3). The district court determined that their equal-pay claims were subject to a two-year statute of limitations, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 541.07(5) (2018).

The coaches argue that the district court abused its discretion by taking an overly rigid approach to its equitable-tolling analysis. The coaches assert that by relying on the guidelines for invoking equitable tolling set forth in Sanchez, the district court disregarded the Supreme Court's statement in Holland v. Florida that "[i]n emphasizing the need for flexibility, for avoiding mechanical rules, we have followed a tradition in which courts of equity have sought to relieve hardships which, . . . arise from a hard and fast adherence to more absolute legal rules . . . ." 560 U.S. 631, 650, 130 S. Ct. 2549, 2563 (2010) (quotations and citation omitted).

As an initial matter, Sanchez recited the holding in Holland that equitable tolling of the federal habeas corpus statute is "appropriate when (1) a petitioner had been pursuing his rights reasonably diligently, and (2) some extraordinary circumstance prevented him from filing his habeas corpus petition on time"; thus, it is inaccurate to state that a district court...

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