Former Univ. of Hawaiʻi football coach sues Washington State over firing for refusing vaccine
SPOKANE — Former Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich has sued the university and Gov. Jay Inslee after he was fired last year for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The lawsuit, filed last week in Whitman County Superior Court, names the university, athletic director Patrick Chun and Inslee as defendants. Inslee, a Democrat, had required that state employees get vaccinated, or receive a specific exemption, to keep their jobs.
Rolovich contends Chun and other university officials were "hostile" when they denied him a religious exemption and fired him from his $3 million a year coaching job midway through the 2021 season. Rolovich was the highest-paid public employee in the state at the time and had more than three years left on his five-year contract.
Rolovich is Catholic and said in the lawsuit that he applied for a religious exemption from the vaccine requirement.
The lawsuit contends Chun interrupted that process, which led to Rolovich's religious exemption ultimately being rejected. It also contends Chun called Rolovich a "con man" and accused him of being selfish.
Washington State officials issued a statement Monday saying the lawsuit was "wholly without merit."
"Washington State University carried out the Governor's COVID-19 vaccination proclamation for state employees in a fair and lawful manner, including in its evaluation of employee requests for medical or religious exemptions and accommodations. For multiple reasons, Mr. Rolovich did not qualify, and the university firmly stands by that decision," the statement said.
Rolovich appealed his firing in a letter submitted in November 2021 to Chun, but the appeal was denied. A second appeal was then sent to university President Kirk Schulz, who denied that appeal in December.
Last April, Rolovich filed a tort claim saying he intended to sue and seek $25 million in damages for wrongful termination. However, the lawsuit filed this week does not ask for a specific dollar amount in damages.
The lawsuit alleges breach of contract, discrimination and wrongful withholding of wages, as well as violations of the Civil Rights Act and the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Rolovich was hired from Hawaiʻi in 2020 after former coach Mike Leach left for Mississippi State. In parts of two seasons, Rolovich led the Cougars to a 5-6 record. After he was fired at midseason, assistant coach Jake Dickert was named interim coach and led the Cougars to a bowl game last season. Dickert was made the permanent coach after that.