Disability Discrimination Rumors Swirl at Tennessee

Former Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt flip-flopped on whether she was terminated because of her Alzheimer's diagnosis.

Absent a major scandal (See Penn State), it is rare for a coaching icon to lose his or her job.

But major news out of Knoxville, Tennessee this week suggested that the University of Tennessee forced women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt out of her position following a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s this past Spring. Yet Summit was the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history with eight national titles and an overall record of 1,098-208 (.841).

In a signed affidavit that is part of a discrimination lawsuit filed against the University of Tennessee by former Lady Vols Media director Debby Jennings, Summit states that she felt athletic director Dave Hart forced her to step down due to her diagnosis during a meeting at the NCAA tournament in Chicago in March of 2012.

“This was very surprising to me and very hurtful as that was a decision I would have liked to have made on my own at the end of the season after consulting with my family, doctors, colleagues, and friends and not be told this by Mr. Hart. I felt this was wrong.” (See Affidavit ¶ 5).

Summitt changed her tone, however, once the media read her affidavit.

On Saturday the 60-year-old coach said the decision to step down was her decision alone. What this means for the legitimacy of her affidavit is up in the air. But Summitt’s predicament raises an interesting question: Could Summitt win a discrimination lawsuit had the public university’s Athletic Director forced her to resign due to a perceived disability?

If Summitt felt like she could still lead the Lady Vols with some reasonable accommodations such as hiring an extra assistant coach, but was instead fired, then she might turn to the Americans with Disability Act (42 U.S.C. §§12101 et seq.) for relief.

The ADA Amendment Act of 2008 (ADAAA) defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.”

Alzheimer’s is tricky because it might be years after a diagnosis before symptoms really limit an employee’s ability to perform their job. Nevertheless, the fact that an individual could at some point in the future experience symptoms that would “substantially limit” a major life activity likely qualifies that person as disabled even before the condition worsens and really does limit a major life activity.

If Summitt wanted to pursue an ADA claim she would first have to establish a prima facie case by showing:

  1. She is an individual with a disability within meaning of statute
  2. The university had notice of her disability
  3. With reasonable accommodation she could perform the essential functions of the position and
  4. That her employer refused to make such accommodations

An employer, in this case UT, can defeat a PFC claim if it shows:

  1. Making a reasonable accommodation would cause it hardship
  2. And that hardship is undue

A number of key facts are missing regarding Summitt’s situation including whether she actually wanted to remain as head coach and if she ever requested a reasonable accommodation.  The definitions of “reasonable accommodation” and “undue hardship” are also not set in stone.

As of now, however, it looks like the University of Tennessee legal team should just stay focused on defending itself from “buttchugging” defamation.  Seriously.

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