Suit alleges Summitt forced out at UT

BY foxsports • September 28, 2012

Debby Jennings, a former University of Tennessee associate athletic director for media relations, filed suit in federal court Thursday against the University of Tennessee and Athletic Director Dave Hart.

Jennings is filing suit for "unlawful discrimination and retaliation" after she was let go in May after 35 years as the media contact for the Lady Vols.

In the suit, Jennings also alleges that former women's basketball coach Pat Summitt was told in March she would not be returning to Tennessee for the 2012-13 season.

Summitt announced in 2011 she had been diagnosed with dementia and would be stepping down. The decision appeared to be her own, and assistant Holly Warlick was promoted.

Tennessee has denied the claim, saying "That statement is absolutely not true. It was Pat's idea to be head coach emeritus."

In the lawsuit, Jennings alleges she was forced out after being given the choice to be fired for insubordination or resign. The suit states she was "marginalized and ostracized" within the program and "denied employment opportunities due to her gender/or age."

According to the lawsuit, Hart spoke with Jennings at a May 15 meeting and gave her less than three hours to choose whether to resign, retire or be fired. The suit charges that she lost her job either due to her gender and age or out of retaliation for her advocacy of gender-equity issues, opposition to discrimination against female student-athletes and opposition to sex, disability or age discrimination.

Hart and other athletic officials "fostered a culture of intimidation and hostility in the athletic department where employees questioning them or their ideas in any manner were regarded as disloyal or divisive," David Burkhalter, the lawyer representing Jennings, wrote in the suit.

The suit alleges that 12 of the 15 employees laid off as part of the consolidation of the two athletic departments were female. The suit also noted that only three women fill the athletic department's 23 executive staff and senior administrative staff level positions.

After Burkhalter made his initial allegations regarding Jennings' departure in a May letter to Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek, Hart issued a statement indicating he had lost confidence in Jennings' continued employment at the university because of her insubordination.

"Given the nature and volume of inaccurate information that has been disseminated from those around Debby Jennings, I believe it is necessary to set the record straight," Hart wrote in the May statement. "I lost confidence that her employment was in the best interests of the athletics department. Specifically, I concluded that she was insubordinate, disrespectful and fostered an atmosphere of negativity and division."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report