Debby Jennings filed suit Thursday in federal court against the University of Tennessee and athletic director Dave Hart alleging "unlawful discrimination and retaliation" after her abrupt departure this spring from an athletic department that she served for more than 35 years as the primary media contact for Lady Vols athletics.
The suit was filed by Jennings' attorney, David A. Burkhalter, and consists of 41 pages and 11 exhibits. It seeks a trial by jury and both monetary and injunctive relief. It also specifically requests a court order requiring Hart and athletic department officials Chris Fuller and Jimmy Stanton to undergo "appropriate diversity and ethics training."
Stanton said Thursday that UT athletics officials would have no comment on the suit.
The suit alleges that Hart told former women's basketball coach Pat Summitt in March, the day before the team traveled to Chicago to begin the NCAA tournament, that she would not be coaching the team during the 2012-13 season, and that he planned to name Holly Warlick to replace college basketball's all-time winningest coach.
The suit says that when Summitt told Jennings about the conversation with Hart that Summitt was "very upset and extremely hurt." It also says that Summitt told her secretary, personal administrative assistant and a Lady Vols assistant coach.
Summitt, who announced in August of 2011 that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia Alzheimer's type, stepped down on April 18 to become head coach emeritus for the program. At that time, she said the decision was hers and that she was comfortable with it. Assistant coach Warlick was promoted.
In response to the suit's allegation concerning Summitt, UT spokesperson Margie Nichols said, "that statement is absolutely not true. It was Pat's idea to be head coach emeritus."
Jennings' suit contends that her opposition to Hart's treatment of Summitt was a factor in Hart's decision to give Jennings the choice during a May 15 meeting to be fired for "insubordination," resign or retire from her position as associate athletics director for media relations. Jennings, 57, says in the suit that this was the first time she had heard from Hart — or anyone else — that he felt Jennings had allegedly been "insubordinate." Jennings says that she was given until 4:30 p.m. that day to make a decision and that when she returned to her office, her computer had been "confiscated and removed."
Burkhalter said in a letter to UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek on May 18 that Jennings had been advised "to pursue a discrimination/retaliation case against UT," although Jennings "has instructed me to see if this unfortunate matter can be resolved on an amicable basis."
UT's response was to issue a statement on May 24 that said Jennings was "insubordinate, disrespectful and fostered an atmosphere of negativity and division." In the statement, Hart said: "I lost confidence that her employment was in the best interests of the Athletics Department."
The university also released emails and letters from Jennings' personnel file.
Overall, Jennings' suit alleges that she was "marginalized and ostracized" and "denied employment opportunities due to her gender/or age." It notes that she was replaced by a younger male, Eric Trainer.
Burkhalter said that the suit was filed in federal court because it pertains to, among other issues, Title IX. The next steps include pre-trial discovery and depositions. Burkhalter also said a complaint was filed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.