Penn State counters Paterno-Kenney claims in federal court

Penn State responded to Jay Paterno and Bill Kenney in federal court this week, insisting that the two former assistant football coaches received every penny they were promised and were not defamed in their release from the Nittany Lions football program in 2012.

Paterno and Kenney filed a lawsuit against Penn State in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in July 2014. They filed an amended claim in November.

The suit claims that the two were owed six months more severance pay than they received and that the university’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal damaged their employability in the world of college and professional football.

In the 117-page document filed Wednesday, Penn State calls the claims “baseless,” saying it “fails to contain a single factual assertion” that the university, the NCAA or Louis Freeh’s investigators “specifically targeted (the plaintiffs) intending to harm them in any way shape or form.

“Nevertheless and in an attempt to secure even more compensation from Penn State, (p)laintiffs have concocted a facially implausible set of allegations that tell a false and preposterous tale of an alleged conspiracy directed at them,” university attorney Joseph O’Dea Jr. wrote.

The memorandum of law supporting Penn State’s motion to dismiss attacks the idea that the two coaches did not receive comparable employment when Bill O’Brien took over the head coaching position and let them go, along with others in the football program, when he brought in his own staff.

O’Brien led the Nittany Lions for two seasons after Paterno’s father, legendary coach Joe Paterno, was dismissed in the fallout of the arrest of Sandusky, a retired assistant coach.

O’Dea went as far as to invoke statements the university made upon O’Brien’s hiring that “affirmed the positive legacy of Penn State football” and three weeks later, when Joe Paterno died, claiming they did not “imply anything negative about the assistant coaching staff at Penn State.”

The university also renewed previous objections to the employability factor based on the fact that Kenney is currently an assistant coach at Western Michigan and that Jay Paterno pursued head coaching positions rather than assistant slots.

O’Brien announced his hiring decisions Feb. 18, 2012.

According to Paterno and Kenney, the practice had been, due to the nature of football being an area of intense work in the first half of the year, that any hires not kept at the end of the season were paid through the end of June, with severance pay starting after that. They claimed that conversations with Penn State employee Erikka Runkle confirmed that.

O’Dea, however, said that conversation does not constitute an agreement and said the 18 months of severance pay received through July 2013 “exceeded the allegedly promised salary and benefits.”

On the issue of conspiracy, the issue gets murky.

On Page 5, in stating the facts of the case, O’Dea writes that “the NCAA imposed a consent decree upon Penn State, and Penn State agreed not to challenge the consent decree.”

On Page 25, in attacking the conspiracy argument, the language is the same, but the punctuation changes. “Here, plaintiffs allege that the consent decree was ‘imposed’ on Penn State,” the defense wrote, adding in references to NCAA threats against the university to implement a football program death penalty.

O’Dea claims this idea contradicts allegations of conspiracy.

“Plaintiffs cannot have it both ways,” he wrote.