Wrongful Termination Nets UConn Basketball Coach $11 Million Award

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

January 28, 2022

An arbitrator has awarded former University of Connecticut (UConn) basketball coach Kevin Ollie more than $11 million after finding that the school wrongfully terminated him. The arbitrator held that UConn violated a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) by terminating Ollie without "just cause" before NCAA disciplinary proceedings against him were completed.

The case illustrates how employers that operate in a unionized environment should carefully follow all terms of the CBA when terminating an employee to ensure they meet the just cause standard.

Ollie was coach of UConn's basketball team for six seasons and led the team to victory for the 2014 national title. He had approximately $11 million worth of compensation remaining on his contract at the time he was fired for alleged violations of NCAA rules. The university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors (UConn-AAUP), the union that represents faculty and coaches, filed a grievance on Ollie's behalf claiming violations of the CBA. After a mediation attempt failed, the case was sent to arbitration.

In the decision, the arbitrator said that, as a university employee and UConn-AAUP member, Ollie was "entitled to the protections of the CBA between the Union and the University as well as UConn's policies and procedures for employee discipline and discharge." The arbitrator found that UConn had failed to meet just cause standards by firing Ollie based on several incorrect assumptions and before UConn had found grounds for just cause termination. "An employer cannot first terminate an employee and then undertake an investigation to establish the factual grounds supporting its predetermined conclusion," the arbitrator wrote.

"Just cause" can be defined as being reasonable under the circumstances, not offending notions of fairness and not being unduly harsh or arbitrary. Often, arbitrators will examine whether a termination meets several tests for "just cause," including notifying an employee that their conduct may result in discipline, conducting a fair investigation and having proof of an employee's wrongdoing.

In a statement, UConn disagreed with the arbitrator's findings, saying that Ollie's termination was appropriate. The school stated that it did not have the luxury of waiting an additional 16 months for the NCAA proceedings to conclude before firing Ollie, as his continued employment jeopardized the school's athletic program.

UConn must pay the award to Ollie within 10 days of the ruling. A federal discrimination case by Ollie against UConn, in which he alleges he was treated differently than a white coach, is ongoing.