Schweyen lawsuit against University of Montana to proceed

By: - May 5, 2022 4:57 pm

The Russell Smith Federal Courthouse. (Tommy Martino, for the Daily Montanan)

A discrimination lawsuit filed by former University of Montana head basketball Coach Shannon Schweyen will proceed in court, and the case does not require arbitration, as UM argued, according to a Thursday order from a U.S. District Court judge in Missoula.

In a complaint filed in November, Schweyen alleged the Missoula flagship discriminated against her based on sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. UM has denied the allegations.

However, UM also argued the employment contracts Schweyen signed meant she needed to resolve her dispute with the campus through arbitration, not in court.

Schweyen served as head coach at UM from fall 2016 to spring 2020 and worked under two employment agreements with the university.

In an order evaluating the language of the contracts and the fates of similar employment disputes, Judge Dana Christensen denied UM’s motion to compel arbitration and dismiss the complaint.

In an email, lawyer Linda Correia, who represents Schweyen, said she and her client are pleased the court rejected the university’s argument the case should be decided in arbitration.

Coach Schweyen’s case will move forward in federal court, where proceedings are public, and after discovery, the case will be decided by a jury of her peers, instead of by a single arbitrator under the cover of a private process,” said Correia, of Correia & Puth, based in Washington, D.C.

In the complaint, Schweyen alleged UM unlawfully terminated her after two of her players decided to explore athletic opportunities elsewhere, but male coaches didn’t face the same consequences. Schweyen, an MVP basketball player and former “Lady Griz” herself, also alleged UM paid her less than a male coach even though she had more experience and “a stronger winning record.”

In an earlier response to a separate gender discrimination lawsuit, UM said it is committed to providing a working and learning environment that is free from all forms of discrimination. Thursday, UM reiterated its denial of the allegations by Schweyen.

“UM disagrees with the allegations in the complaint. UM will defend the allegations in the appropriate forum,” the campus said.

In its argument the case should be arbitrated, UM pointed to dispute resolution language in both of the employment agreements with Schweyen. The language states parties should informally negotiate disagreements, and if that fails, mediate, and if that doesn’t work, agree to binding arbitration. 

Christensen, though, said Schweyen didn’t waive her right to pursue civil rights claims in a judicial forum when she signed that contract. The judge said the Ninth Circuit has found some employment disputes must be arbitrated, but it has done so when employment agreements clearly spell out the rights a worker is waiving.

“If the Lai (relevant) line of cases requires anything, it requires precision on the part of the employer in occasioning a contractual waiver from their employees as to their ability to advance employment discrimination claims in a judicial forum,” the order said. “Schweyen’s employment agreements lacked this requisite precision.

“In other words, nothing in Schweyen’s employment agreements put her ‘on notice that … (s)he was somehow entering into an agreement to waive a specific statutory remedy afforded h(er) by a civil rights statute.’ Because of this, the university’s motion must be denied.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”