KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Former Lady Vols media director Debby Jennings has filed a lawsuit against the University of Tennessee and athletic director Dave Hart alleging that age and sex discrimination led to her forced retirement from the school where she had worked for 35 years.
Hart and other athletic officials wanted to remodel the athletic department as a "good ol' boys" club while replacing her with a younger man, Jennings charges in the lawsuit filed Thursday with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Jennings was 57 years old when she left her job in May as the university worked toward consolidating the men's and women's athletic departments.
The suit also alleges that Hart forced former Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt to step down at the end of last season. David Burkhalter, the lawyer representing Jennings, said the university retaliated against his client when she protested that Summitt's early onset dementia protected her under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Summitt, who remains on staff as the Lady Vols' head coach emeritus, indicated during the April news conference announcing her retirement that the move was her own decision.
Although Tennessee officials declined comment on the other allegations in the lawsuit, they flatly denied the charge that Summitt was forced out.
"It's absolutely not true," university spokesperson Margie Nichols said. "It was Pat's idea to become the head coach emeritus. I think she made that really clear at her press conference earlier this year."
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," Burkhalter 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 had 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."