The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin Published Timothy Liam EPSTEIN'S Article Entitled, "UConn coach’s 'just cause' dismissal gets sticky in a hurry"

On the morning of March 10, the University of Connecticut announced it had initiated disciplinary procedures to terminate men’s basketball coach, Kevin Ollie, for “just cause.”

UConn stated it would have no further comment until both the university’s disciplinary process and the ongoing NCAA investigation were over, and further declined to explain why it fired Ollie or why it intends to fire him for cause.

Given the reference to the NCAA investigation, a possible explanation of the pending dismissal is Ollie’s connection, if any, to the allegations that UConn’s basketball program committed recruiting violations.

Regardless of the reason, the “just cause” classification indicates a finding of dishonorable or unethical conduct and, though rarely used to fire coaches, it would likely relieve the university of an obligation to pay Ollie the nearly $11 million remaining in his employment contract.

According to the UConn chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which serves as a union and represents faculty, researchers, coaches and other athletic personnel, Ollie is still the men’s basketball coach pending his right to a hearing.

As a union member, Ollie is provided with certain procedural rights through a negotiated grievance process and, with the assistance of the union and his attorneys, Ollie can use the grievance hearings, arbitration and possibly litigation to fight the termination.

Though Ollie is contractually obligated to exhaust a series of remedies that includes several layers of hearings and appeals, Ollie has made it clear that he will be contesting the termination.

Ollie stated, “I intend to work vigorously to defend my honor and my integrity, and to defend my good name to the fullest extent provided under the law.”

Since Ollie’s employment contract contains various avenues for remedies to challenge his dismissal prior to litigation, he will have to try those before filing a lawsuit. The first step for Ollie is to go through the university’s grievance process, which includes a hearing with UConn Athletic Director David Benedict.

There are a few issues with going straight to court and filing suit.

One being that judges typically require a party to exhaust all contractual and other remedies before a legal controversy is considered “ripe” for judicial review.

Ripeness refers to the readiness of a case for litigation. The goal of the ripeness doctrine is to prevent premature adjudication; thus, a claim is not ripe if it rests upon contingent future events. Texas v. United States, 523 U.S. 296 (1998).

Another reason to avoid a lawsuit at this stage is the fact that the collective bargaining agreement states that once an employee seeks judicial review, the university will no longer have an obligation to proceed with a grievance hearing. Thus, if Ollie goes to court before going through UConn’s internal procedures, he may be out of luck with the university as well as the court.

Prior to the hearing, under the collective bargaining agreement, Ollie should receive a “statement of reasons” from the university for his termination, after which he will then have an opportunity to rebut those reasons.

Depending on the basis for the dismissal, which has not yet been publicly disclosed, Ollie may argue that UConn prematurely punished him before the NCAA’s investigation was final and is blaming him for the wrongdoing of others; that UConn is using the “just cause” classification to avoid paying him; and that the university has damaged his reputation and made it impossible for him to obtain another coaching job.

To present the aforementioned defenses, Ollie may submit documentation like e-mails or texts, witness testimony and other evidence that demonstrate his innocence and show fault on the part of the university.

After the initial hearing, a written recommendation will be issued by the university athletic department, and if Ollie objects, he will then be entitled to an appeal before UConn President Susan Herbst.

At this point, Herbst would review the written recommendation and Ollie would again, with the assistance of the union and attorneys, have the opportunity to rebut the reasons for termination.

Ollie and his team will likely be mindful that the records, both written and oral, could be available for review by a judge or arbitrator. Should the hearing with Herbst result in no changes, the two sides would then likely go to binding arbitration per the terms of the contract.

After an arbitration hearing, the arbitrator would issue an award and Ollie and UConn would be obligated to accept the award as final and binding. However, while parties in arbitration agree that the arbitrator’s award is “final and binding,” the losing party can still challenge the award in federal court. 9 U.S.C. Section 9.

A federal judge can vacate an arbitration award if the court believes the arbitrator failed to consider all relevant evidence, or if the arbitrator exceeded or abused their powers. 9 U.S.C. Section 10. However, courts review arbitration awards with a high degree of deference to the arbitrator and the award would likely stand.

Given all the hearings and appeals, Ollie’s challenge could take months or even a year.

Ollie’s hearing with Benedict has already been postponed. It was originally supposed to occur within two weeks of his March 10 firing under the collective bargaining agreement, but the union requested a 15-day extension. The delay in the grievance hearing with Benedict could mean that the sides are negotiating a settlement.

Such a settlement would likely involve UConn paying Ollie a percentage of money from his contract and, in exchange, Ollie would contractually relinquish any potential legal claims he might have against the university or its officials.

While the majority of these “just cause” coach terminations end in settlement before any protracted, public dispute, this matter is showing some indications that both Ollie and UConn will put up a fight, as Ollie stands to lose the several millions left on his contract, and UConn risks the appearance of mistreating a former beloved UConn player and coach, while looking to get out of a contract that it has no desire to pay out.

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