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Opinion: Remembering Stephanie Schleuder, volleyball icon and legal pioneer

The former volleyball coach, who coached at UMD and Macalester, also led a legal charge that affected state and federal law.
Image by Sarah Mai

Reports about the death in late June at age 73 of Stephanie Schleuder, the highly-decorated Gopher women’s volleyball coach overlooked her most significant achievement that led to major changes in the law, first, for employees in Minnesota, and later, throughout the country.

Widely known as Steph, the Minneapolis native was a multi-sports athlete at Richfield High School in the 1960s before the University’s Duluth campus, where she excelled in volleyball and other athletics, earning an award as the top woman in the school’s physical education program.

After graduation, Steph began her long and successful 34-year college coaching career.

Her first stop was assisting in volleyball at Bemidji State, followed by a stint at her alma mater, where she assisted in women’s volleyball and coached women’s basketball, too, and then eight years at the University of Alabama, where she continued double duty coaching the women’s volleyball and basketball squads.

Returning home, she spent 13 years coaching volleyball here at the University from 1982-1994, compiling a laudable 263-163 win-loss record, along with a couple of post-season appearances although her teams were usually in the middle of the pack in the then truly 10-team Big Ten.

After she was dismissed here, she ended her coaching career with a 12-year stint at Macalester in St. Paul before her retirement, compiling  702 wins in her 34-year career while earning many honors, including induction in the inaugural group of the University of Minnesota – Duluth Hall of Fame, the Minnesota Volleyball Hall of Fame and the parallel Hall of Fame of the American Volleyball Coaches, a group she presided over for two years while heading the Scots at Macalester.

Schleuder statutes 

Despite her achievements, no statue was erected of her. But she did bring about important state and federal employment statutes.

Following a mediocre season, she was ousted, technically a contract non-renewal, by the then-women’s athletic director, Chris Voelz. While no reason was given, it was attributed to a dispute over a discrimination complaint by Schleuder about her $50,000 salary which she felt was well below that paid to coaches of similarly-situated men’s teams.

After she was discharged, by Voelz, Schleuder asserted a claim of gender discrimination against the University, which ultimately led to a sizable monetary settlement and a new law.

As part of the settlement, the University and Voelz insisted Schleuder agree not to make any negative remarks or accusations of discrimination, which which was capsulized into what is known as a non-disparagement agreement, or “NDA” or “gag” clauses, requiring silence by settlement recruits.

But her termination led to a firestorm, reaching the legislative chambers in St. Paul. After several volleys back and forth, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, which dictates government-related information was amended to bar any terms in settlement agreements with public sector employees that have the “purpose or effect of … limiting the discussion of information or opinions related” to their work, which was deemed to be “void and unenforceable” by courts of law.

Schleuders saga

The provision eliminating NDAs or “gag” clauses for public sector employees here did not end Schleuder’s saga. The “Schleuder” provision was the forerunner for a federal measure: the “Speak Out Act,” which bars some NDAs or “gag” clauses in and permits employees who receive settlements to “speak out” about them and the conditions that led to them.

The statute was followed a few months later by a decision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency that oversees labor and management-labor relations in the private sector, which proscribes nondisparagement or “gag” clauses in settlement agreements. It bars employers from inserting clauses in settlement agreements forbidding ex-employees from discussing the terms of their settlements or any adverse conditions in the workplace that led to them.

The “Speak Out” federal measure barring NDAs applies to all employees, both public and private, but it only covers settlements of sexual assault or harassment claims, and not the vast number of other workplace matters. The NLRB prohibition of nondisparagement clauses covers nearly all employers and employees.

Credited to the #metoo movement that arose in 2017, these federal measures are traceable to the foundation laid by Schleuder and her case with the University nearly three decades earlier.

Because of her legacy, “gag” clauses are no longer a laughing matter in Minnesota or elsewhere.

Marshall Tanick is a Constitutional law attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of MEYER NJUS TANICK.

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