Lawyer argues wrongful termination

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- An attorney says Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart gave the woman in charge of media relations for the Lady Vols less than four hours to decide to retire or be fired for "insubordination" earlier this month.

David Burkhalter wrote to Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek that the "ultimatum" to Debby Jennings came in a meeting May 15, according to records first obtained by the Knoxville News Sentinel on Wednesday.

"She was told she had the 'choice' of retiring, being terminated and/or resigning and she was to give Mr. Hart her decision by 4:30 p.m. that same day before he left on the Big Orange Caravan or she would be terminated for alleged 'insubordination,' " Burkhalter wrote to Cheek. "She then returned to her office to find that while she was in the meeting her computer had been confiscated and you can understand how this made her feel as if she was being treated as a common criminal."

Tennessee had no immediate comment Wednesday afternoon.

Burkhalter told Cheek that Jennings had retained him to try and resolve the issue amicably and asks that the university contact him within 10 days. But Burkhalter also asked the university to preserve emails involving Jennings and several athletic department officials and the contents of Jennings' hard drive.

The attorney wrote that he has advised Jennings she could sue Tennessee for discrimination and retaliation over her internal complaints of gender and age discrimination over the past two years. His letter notes those internal complaints were met with "increased hostility, harassment, curtailment of responsibilities, isolation, and other forms of retaliation by the men placed above her."

Jennings' retirement after 35 years at Tennessee was announced a day after her meeting with Hart. Burkhalter's letter notes that Jennings' duties were turned over to a younger man.

Another former Tennessee employee filed a claim with the state's claims commission in April against the university for breach of contract. Bud Ford was associate athletics director for media relations who spent nearly 45 years at Tennessee before agreeing to retire and work as historian for the athletic department for $40,000 a year, a job he started in December.

Ford's complaint charges that Hart "renounced" the contract Dec. 7 with "no basis or justification for defendant's repudiation/termination."