Judge grants motion in Tennessee-Jennings suit

August 8, 2014 - 7:08 PM

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A judge denied one of Tennessee's motions for protective order and granted another in former Lady Vols media director Debby Jennings' lawsuit against the university and athletic director Dave Hart.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton denied a motion that would have forbidden discovery of information related to former Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt's early onset Alzheimer's disease and the circumstances surrounding her departure in April 2012. Summitt stepped down after a 38-year tenure at Tennessee that included eight national championships.

Jennings is suing Tennessee, alleging age and sex discrimination led to her forced retirement after 35 years at the school.

The judge granted a motion prohibiting "extrajudicial use or disclosure of documents and information, including transcripts of deposition testimony" produced during discovery.

The trial is scheduled for April 27.

The suit also argues that Hart retaliated against Jennings when she protested that Summitt's illness protected her from losing her job under the Americans With Disabilities Act. It indicated Jennings was forced out for opposing what she perceived as discriminatory actions taken by Hart against Summitt.

In an oral argument supporting its motions, the university argued that Jennings' lawyer, David Burkhalter, is trying to "plumb the depths" of Summitt's illness to support the case that Hart forced her to step down. The university also argued discovery requests by Jennings were "peripheral" to her disability retaliation claim and expressed concern that her lawyers would attempt to try the case through the media. Burkhalter responded that the Summitt-related discovery was vital to the disability retaliation claim.

Summitt announced in August 2011 she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, and coached the 2011-2012 season. In its motion, the university provided statements from her son, Tyler Summitt, Hart and Chancellor Jimmy Cheek saying Hart gave Summitt the option of continuing to coach or becoming head coach emeritus. Summitt had released a statement in October 2012 saying it was her decision to step down, clarifying her previous comments in a signed affidavit. In the affidavit, Summitt had said the AD told her in a meeting on March 14, 2012, that she would not be returning — "a decision I would have liked to have made on my own." Summitt also said in the affidavit that Hart later told her she'd misinterpreted his comments.

The university hasn't disputed Jennings' claim that Summitt was upset after that March meeting with Hart and believed she'd been told not to return as coach the following season. Jennings sent an email to Hart two days later asking him to reconsider because she believed his actions were discriminatory.

Tyler Summitt's affidavit said his mother initially misunderstood Hart and that the situation was cleared up within hours of their meeting. She remains part of the staff as head coach emeritus.

In denying the motion for protective order involving Summitt, Guyton ruled that any matters discussed by Hart and the university regarding Summitt after May 15, 2012, are outside the scope of relevant discovery.