More than a year after Nick Rolovich was fired as Washington State's football coach for failing to comply with the mandate that state employees be vaccinated for COVID-19, the former coach is firing back at the school and the state.
Rolovich, through his Kenmore attorney, Brian Fahling, filed a 32-page lawsuit Monday morning in Whitman County Superior Court against Washington State University, Gov. Jay Inslee and WSU athletic director Pat Chun.
Rolovich, who had an annual salary of $3.2 million, was fired with cause Oct. 18, 2021, meaning he did not receive the $3.6 million buyout he would have been owed had he been fired without cause.
The lawsuit says the defendants violated Rolovich's "constitutional, statutory and contractual rights," causing him "significant and ongoing damages."
The lawsuit, which asks for an unspecified amount of money for damages, including punitive, contains many noteworthy claims. Among them were that Chun interfered in the blind review process to assess Rolovich's claim of a religious exemption to the mandate, that Rolovich followed all of WSU's COVID protocols and Chun didn't, and that "WSU willfully and improperly withheld wages from Mr. Rolovich."
The lawsuit also says that when Chun told Rolovich in August 2021 that a new mandate would disallow personal exemptions as a reason to forgo the vaccine, Chun insinuated that Inslee had sought that change to target Rolovich and WSU.
A WSU athletics spokesperson said any comment about the lawsuit would come from Phil Weiler, WSU vice president for marketing and communications.
In an email to The Seattle Times, Weiler wrote Rolovich's lawsuit "is wholly without merit" and that university enforced the vaccine mandate "in a fair and lawful manner" in deciding that the coach's didn't qualify for medical or religious exemptions.
"Washington State University will vigorously defend itself against Mr. Rolovich's claims," Weiler wrote.
Calls to Fahling's office were not returned.
The lawsuit claims without corroboration that WSU's human resource services department told Chun that it had determined that Rolovich was entitled to a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate.
The lawsuit says that Chun, in a memo to human services, challenged the assertion that Rolovich was entitled to a religious exemption. Chun's challenge, the lawsuit says, was based on "the Athletic Department's assertion that 'Rolovich had made several statements that cast doubt on his claimed sincerely held religious belief.' "
The lawsuit says that on Oct. 18, 2021, the day Rolovich was fired, human resource services sent him an email saying it had determined it did not approve his request for a religious exemption. The lawsuit claims that human resource services "allowed Mr. Chun to improperly influence and interfere with the final decision made in its blind review process."
The lawsuit also says that while Rolovich followed WSU's protocols for COVID-19, Chun didn't. The lawsuit claims that four days after Rolovich was fired, "Mr. Chun was caught violating masking regulations at a donor event" and that days later, "Mr. Chun was caught violating masking regulations while in the locker room with WSU football players."
The allegation that WSU improperly withheld wages from Rolovich goes back to the summer of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The lawsuit says Rolovich was asked to take a 10% cut in pay in light of the financial issues the pandemic had caused.
The lawsuit says that Rolovich orally agreed, "but only on the condition that WSU not withhold 10 percent from his assistant coaches. Nevertheless, WSU did withhold 10 percent from the salaries of its assistant coaches."
During the August 2021 meeting when Rolovich was told that the new mandate would not include a personal exemption as an exception, the lawsuit says Chun "stated that Gov. Inslee 'did this' just to come after Rolovich and WSU."
The lawsuit says that based on the context, "Mr. Rolovich understood 'did this' to mean that Gov. Inslee was trying to force Mr. Rolovich's hand with his new mandate because he was angry that the highest paid and one of the highest profile State employees had asserted personal or religious objections to his vaccine mandate."
Rolovich also made the assertion that Inslee was trying to force his hand when Rolovich appealed his firing in November 2021. The governor's office responded then that, "He's just wrong."
An Inslee spokesperson referred to the comment made last November and said his office would have no further comment.
The lawsuit claims that unlike other WSU football coaches, Rolovich's contract "did not include provisions requiring him to follow state and federal health and safety guidelines."
The lawsuit also says "nothing in Mr. Rolovich's employee agreement with WSU contemplated a scenario where WSU could claim 'just cause' to terminate him because he refused to violate his religious faith, conscience or bodily integrity."
Although the lawsuit asks for no specific amount, Rolovich filed a tort claim against the university in August seeking $25 million for wrongful termination. A tort claim is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against a state agency.
Washington State hired Rolovich in January 2020 after coaching at Hawaii, where he led the team to three bowl games in four years after taking over a struggling program.
After leading the Cougars to a 1-3 record in a shortened 2020 season, he entered the national spotlight when he announced July 21, 2021, that he was not vaccinated for COVID-19 and would not attend Pac-12 media days in person.
The controversy regarding Rolovich's vaccine decision remained a hot topic until he was fired seven games into the 2021 season with WSU having a 4-3 record.