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Former Washington State coach Nick Rolovich has limited options after firing over vaccine mandate

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Nick Rolovich is fighting back.

The former Washington State football coach has hired an attorney, put out a statement and plans to take an unspecified legal action against WSU after he was fired Monday for failing to comply with a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for state and university employees.

But is it a bluff? Would it even work if he tried?

“He has a tough road to hoe,” said Lance Rogers, a corporate attorney and founding partner of Rogers Counsel in Pennsylvania. “He can always decide to litigate this and see where it gets him, but I certainly think that are ramifications for going down that road for future employment.”

In a statement released Wednesday, Rolovich’s attorney Brian Fahling said Rolovich’s termination was “unjust and unlawful” after he refused to be vaccinated and his request for a religious exemption was denied by the university. He said Rolovich, 42, has been “derided, demonized, and ultimately fired from his job, merely for being devout in his Catholic faith.”

Nick Rolovich coached Washington State for 11 games over two years.
Nick Rolovich coached Washington State for 11 games over two years.

Fahling didn’t say when asked by USA TODAY Sports which cause of action he might pursue in a lawsuit. It could be wrongful termination or religious discrimination or both, if he even files a lawsuit, legal experts told USA TODAY Sports. The whole point might be to make things uncomfortable enough for his former bosses that they will want to pay him a settlement to go away.

A bigger question might be what his career prospects will be after this. Here is a look at his options and obstacles.

His future career options

Rolovich's career record as a college head coach is 33-33, including 5-6 in two seasons at WSU. Is that good enough for him to get hired again at a major program in some capacity despite all this? Earlier this year, he got sued by a former player who alleged the coach violated his civil rights. Now he’s lost his job because he refused to get vaccinated and never publicly explained why. Some football employers in certain states might not care about this. Others will.

“Employers want to provide a safe environment,” said Rogers, who is not involved the Rolovich situation but has been following it. “Somebody who’s not willing to play by the rules as an active and considerate team member is something that would weigh into an employment situation. If he does decide to file suit over it, it makes it look all the more obstinate, and an employer would have to think twice about somebody who would sue over a situation where they held the key to rectifying the situation.”

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Before Rolovich’s firing, his former coach at the University of Hawaii, June Jones, also worried about how his vaccine refusal would affect his career and told him so.

“He’s a winner as a person, winner as a coach and you know, I just hate to see his career… because I’m not so sure he’ll get another job if he doesn’t take (the vaccine) and gets fired for this thing,” he told USA TODAY Sports earlier this month.

His legal options

Generally, when college football coaches get fired these days for losing too many games, they are terminated without legal “cause” and are owed a buyout for the remainder of their contract. If that were the case with Rolovich, he would be owed about $4.4 million from WSU for a contract that ran through June 2025, according to his contract. But that is not the case here. He was not fired for losing too many games and instead was fired “for just cause." He is not entitled to additional pay in this circumstance.

Rolovich, who earned $3 million annually, was fired “for cause,” WSU athletics director Pat Chun said Monday. “He’s not eligible to work here now” because he didn’t comply with the state mandate.

His contract says he can be fired for “just cause” if he violates his contract, including by failing to abide the law and “comply with and support all rules, regulations, policies, and decisions established or issued by the University.”

He could challenge that by filing a wrongful termination lawsuit, but that would be “a challenging route to go,” said Chris Casillas, a labor law expert at Seattle University. Casillas said said that’s because courts generally look at whether the termination decision was made in good faith and is supported by some evidence, as opposed to having some ill-defined reason made up on a whim. In this case, the university can point to the state mandate, the notice Rolovich and others were given to comply and the compliance process that was set for all employees.

Could he challenge the mandate?

Others recently have tried and failed. The mandate came down in August from Gov. Jay Inslee – state employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or obtain approval for a religious or medical exemption. Rolovich sought a religious exemption from the mandate but didn’t get one and was dismissed with four of his assistant coaches.

In August, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block Indiana University’s vaccine mandate for students and employees after it was challenged by students, who argued the mandate violates their constitutional right to bodily integrity under the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court rejected the students’ request for emergency relief.

Earlier this week, a Washington state judge denied a request for a temporary injunction by state employees to stop Inslee’s vaccination mandate. The employees argued the mandate violated their rights. The judge disagreed and noted the governor had the legal authority to issue the mandate.

“It is extremely unlikely that any judicial body in this country is going to strike down a mandate in this environment and certainly on a topic this important,” Rogers said. “I think what a lot of people fail to understand is that the COVID vaccine is not the first vaccine this country has ever seen. There is a long and rich history in the law of mandates and requirements.”

What about religious discrimination?

Rolovich could claim his firing amounted to religious discrimination. His attorney’s statement said that “since early April, it became clear that Chun had already determined that Coach Rolovich would be fired” and that “Chun’s animus towards Coach Rolovich’s sincerely held religious beliefs … will be thoroughly detailed in litigation.”

Could he prove he was being unfairly treated because of his religious beliefs? Rolovich has not publicly explained what they are but came from a Catholic family and attended a Catholic high school.

“He would have to show they didn’t give him the exemption because they were treating him unfairly, as a result of his religion,” Rogers said. “That’s really kind of a tough sale here.”

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According to WSU protocol, a committee made determinations on religious exemption requests without knowing the identities of the applicants. If the request was approved by the committee, then the applicant's supervisor would determine whether the university could reasonably accommodate the request without having such an unvaccinated employee pose a risk to community health.

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Rolovich’s attorney said WSU “indicated that even if the exemption had been granted, no accommodation would have been made.”

Casillas said the law allows some discretion for employers if the requested accommodation isn’t reasonable, or if it would create an undue hardship.

“To speculate a little bit, I would say as the head football coach of the lone football program at Washington State University, I don’t know how they would accommodate his request," Casillas said. "I don’t know where else they would put him. Ordinarily, if you’re a secretary, if there was some other position they could put you in to be able to perform your job, that’s easier to do at those levels. But at his level, I’m not really clear how they could accommodate him without creating a substantial hardship.”

Before filing any lawsuit, his contract requires him to participate in out-of-court mediation with WSU “when a dispute arises … and it cannot be resolved by direct negotiation.”

“That could be another forum to try to attempt some type of settlement before the legal bills start piling up on both sides,” Casillas said.

He also can appeal the decision to fire him for “just cause” within 15 days, but that appeal goes to university president Kirk Schulz, who said he helped make the decision to terminate Rolovich after he had been given plenty of time to comply.

“People made a choice, and they had months to make that choice,” Schulz said Monday. “This wasn’t something that all of a sudden popped up.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ex-Washington State coach Nick Rolovich's options limited after firing