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McFeely: Lawyer representing women suing UND says reviving women's hockey his 'only goal'

Dan Siegel, a self-described "radical," has a long history of winning high-profile civil rights cases

Dan Siegel.jpg
Oakland attorney Dan Siegel is representing four North Dakota women suing the University of North Dakota to reinstate women's hockey.
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FARGO — Dan Siegel is a high-powered Bay Area civil rights attorney, described by one news article as a "counterculture catalyst" and by his own Twitter profile as a "radical Oakland activist." His exhortation — "Take the park!" — led to a deadly riot between police and protesters over a tiny spit of land in Berkeley, Calif., in 1969.

Siegel is well-known in Oakland for fighting — and beating — City Hall. He's won a number of high-profile sexual harassment and employment discrimination claims, including a $4.5 million settlement for former Minnesota-Duluth women's hockey coach Shannon Miller for being wrongly fired in 2014.

The dude has a history of being tough on the big boys.

But speaking with Siegel via FaceTime this week, one didn't get the impression he was readying to storm Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks with pitchforks and torches. The attorney came across as a mellow grandfather, with gray hair encircling a bald head and reading glasses perched on his nose.

He sounded hopeful, not confrontational.

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"Maybe they'll reinstate women's hockey. They could choose to do that," Siegel said.

"They" is the powers-that-be at the University of North Dakota, the school being sued by four young women represented by Siegel. The plaintiffs claim that when the university and then-president Mark Kennedy cut the sport in 2017, it denied them and all women's hockey players an opportunity to attend UND and play hockey.

That, the lawsuit claims, is a violation of Title IX, the law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.

"UND is a hockey school. It has always been a hockey school. People view it as a hockey school and hockey is the top sport up in that area. Young hockey players grow up wanting to play for UND. It continues to have a men's team and young men can play hockey at UND. Young women don't have that opportunity," Siegel said.

The lawsuit was filed June 16 in U.S. District Court in North Dakota on behalf of Emily Becker, 19, of Grand Forks; Calli Forsberg, 20, of Devils Lake; Morgan Stenseth, 19, of Grand Forks; and Maya Tellman, 18, of Grand Forks.

Siegel is the same attorney who filed suit in 2018 on behalf of 11 former UND women's hockey players who alleged their Title IX rights were violated when the program was cut. After a long, convoluted court battle, that lawsuit was dismissed. The state of North Dakota argued the lawsuit was moot because the former athletes no longer had eligibility, and while Siegel disagreed the fight was moot, he agreed to the case's dismissal in late 2021 to avoid another appeal.

Siegel at the time promised UND hadn't heard the last of him.

And here we are.

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Like the last time around, the goal is get UND to reinstate women's hockey.

"That's the only goal, really," Siegel said.

When Siegel suggested UND might decide to restart the women's hockey program on its own — "I understand the president who made the decision to cut women's hockey is no longer there," he said — I told him not to hold his breath. Kennedy and the school said the program was cut for financial reasons and UND said so again last December when the original lawsuit was dismissed.

Siegel scoffed at the notion of UND's poverty.

"I don't buy it, first of all. You're talking about a university with a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is making a choice to spend its money elsewhere," Siegel said. "And second, it's not a legitimate defense when it comes to Title IX. You can't say, 'Oh sorry, we can't afford women's sports.' That's not how it works."

While the first lawsuit failed to get UND to reinstate women's hockey, Siegel said it was still fruitful. A ruling by the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that reversed a North Dakota District Court ruling made Title IX waves nationally.

Siegel said the appeals court ruling set a new precedent by saying the famed three-part Title IX compliance test is not the only standard UND had to meet. If a school can meet any of the three parts — proportionality, expansion or common interests — it will generally be found in compliance with the law.

The appeals court ruling remanded the case back to district court even though Siegel failed to show UND was in violation of the three-part rule.

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"That was a major thing in the Title IX world," Siegel said.

UND will be put to the test. If Siegel and his clients win, the school could be forced to restart a women's hockey program.

Don't let the grandfatherly appearance fool you. Siegel, the self-described "radical," has proven he has the chops to get this done.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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