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Two people know what really led to Pat Summitt's retirement as University of Tennessee Lady Vols coach, attorneys told a federal judge Thursday - and Summitt's memory can't be trusted.
Former Lady Vols sports information director Debby Jennings says that's why she needs the right to question UT officials and probe the records of Summitt's retirement. Jennings, who retired a month after Summitt stepped down in April 2012, says the UT Athletic Department forced her out when she objected to treatment of Summitt by officials after Summitt revealed her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton heard arguments Thursday from attorneys for Jennings and for UT, which wants to declare Summitt's retirement off-limits in the lawsuit. Jennings' lawyer, David Burkhalter, said that would cut out the heart of his case.
"Are you going to seek the deposition of Pat Summitt?" Guyton asked.
"We don't know that she's competent," Burkhalter said. "We're not going to put her through being forced to testify, even if Debby Jennings loses this case. That's why we want these records."
Guyton said he'll issue a ruling later. He didn't set a date.
Jennings spent 35 years as Lady Vols media director and says she spoke up against "unlawful actions" by UT Athletic Director Dave Hart against Summitt, who announced the dementia diagnosis in 2011 and retired the following year after 38 winning seasons. Jennings' lawsuit claims her opposition to Hart led to him giving Jennings the choice during a May 15, 2012, meeting to be fired for "insubordination," resign or retire.
UT attorney Edward Phillips said Jennings brought up Summitt's retirement as a bombshell designed to draw media attention to her case. He accused Burkhalter of cherry-picking details from court records as part of a strategy to stir up interest.
"It's apparent she didn't want to have just a run-of-the-mill age or sex discrimination case," Phillips told the judge. "She wanted something with sizzle. So she devised the theory that Dave Hart forced Pat Summitt to retire. That's the simple theory that would draw media attention. But a reasonable investigation of the facts shows Debby Jennings knew that wasn't true."
Hart says in court records he met with Summitt in March 2012 and gave her the option to continue coaching or retire. Jennings claims a "very upset and extremely hurt" Summitt told her Hart offered no option - only a declaration she was out as head coach. Jennings sent Hart an email defending Summitt and asking him to "reconsider."
Two days later, Summitt issued a statement intended to clarify "some misunderstandings." Summitt, now paid $75,000 a year to serve as head coach emeritus, said she wasn't forced out as head coach and that it was "entirely my decision" to step down.
Summitt's son, Tyler, has said she apparently "misunderstood" the conversation with Hart. The son relayed that information to Jennings when Summitt was asked to swear out an affidavit to support the lawsuit, Phillips said.
"(Jennings) knew before she filed this complaint that it wasn't true," Phillips said. "Who in their right mind would tell coach Pat Summitt, 'We're terminating you?' "
Phillips asked the judge to limit the extent lawyers can probe Summitt's retirement - even though he admitted all records in the case are open to inspection as public records under state law - and to bar Jennings' lawyer from talking to reporters about the case.
"She says the relevance of this case outweighs Pat Summitt's privacy," Phillips said. "We say it doesn't. If this continues, UT will not be able to have a fair trial."
Burkhalter argued Summitt's retirement can't be separated from Jennings' case. He said only the records can settle the dispute.
"We're not just pulling stuff out of thin air," Burkhalter said. "They know exactly what those records are. They know exactly what those emails show. They want to keep me from being able to ask questions about them. There should not be a special rule created just for the university."
UT officials said those records could total more than 5,000 pages. No trial date has been set in the lawsuit