Former longtime Jenkintown High School girls’ basketball coach files age discrimination suit against Jenkintown School District

Jim Romano, former longtime Jenkintown High School girls’ basketball coach, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania versus the School District of Jenkintown.

According to the suit, which was filed on April 30, Romano alleges that he was terminated because of his age (70) and that school officials unlawfully targeted him for dismissal.

An answer is due by July 1, according to the docket.

As word spread of the district’s move to discontinue Romano’s contract last summer, former players and current parents in the district began circulating a petition.

In late August, Dr. Jill Takacs, superintendent of Jenkintown School District, sent a letter to the high school community regarding the appointment of a girls’ basketball coach for the 2023-24 season. Dr. Takacs recommended to the school board the hiring of Jamal Elliott, who was subsequently hired and coached the team this season.

During his four-decades-long career, Romano oversaw 10 Bicentennial League Constitution championships, 15 District District 1 Class A championships, a 2018 Class A state championship, an undefeated 2020 season (29-0), and 729 career wins.

The suit is as follows:

Plaintiff is 70-year-old man. Defendant is comprised of two schools, Jenkintown Elementary School, and Jenkintown Middle/High School. And defendant is located in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Plaintiff was employed by defendant as a girls’ basketball coach for over 40 years (for the High School within defendant’s District). Plaintiff was very good at his job, in addition to being very passionate. By way of examples only, plaintiff oversaw 10 Bicentennial League Constitution championships, 15 District 1 Class A Championships, a 2018 Class A State championship, an undefeated 2020 season (29-0) and led teams to over 700 career wins. Plaintiff received a 2017-2018 USA Today Woman’s National Coach of the Year Award and an induction into the Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame. These are among other accolades.

When it became known plaintiff was potentially not being retained as a coach by defendant, hundreds of people (without plaintiff’s knowledge) petitioned for plaintiff’s continued employment as the girls’ basketball coach. Suffice it to say, plaintiff loved his position with all his heart (and deeply cared for the athletes he trained, mentored and supervised). And the community was very fond of plaintiff. Among other management, plaintiff reported to the Athletic Director, Chris O’Brien (O’Brien) and the High School Principal, Thomas Roller (Roller). As with all staff and education personnel, plaintiff indirectly reported to Jill Takacs (Takacs) – the District Superintendent. Plaintiff’s termination from employment was effective on or about June 30, 2023 (when plaintiff’s annual employment agreement was not renewed), subject to a delayed notification of the termination/non-renewal. In the spring of 2023 (only months before his termination), plaintiff was asked by Roller about ‘retirement.’ Roller inquired if plaintiff gave ‘any thought to retirement’ yet; and if so, when plaintiff may retire.

Plaintiff was pleasant (but adamant) with Roller assuring him plaintiff had no intent of retiring (despite plaintiff’s significantly advanced age). Inquiries in close proximity to a termination about ‘retirement’ are evidence of age discrimination. Plaintiff attributed this discriminatory inquiry to Takacs (based upon his conversation with Roller). Within 1-2 months following retirement-related comments directed at plaintiff at the behest of Takacs, plaintiff was informed he might not be renewed or retained as an employee. This was primarily in the early to mid-June 2023 timeframe. Without confirmation of a renewal or continuing employment, plaintiff’s employment was deemed effectively over as of June 30, 2023. Defendant’s management hierarchy was refusing to give plaintiff a conclusive answer about whether plaintiff could or would be renewed and/or retained for the 2023-2024 coaching year (personally and in Board meetings). While stonewalling and ignoring plaintiff’s request(s) for a status of his employment, defendant posted for application submissions in or about July of 2023. To avoid any uncertainty, plaintiff applied for his own job as coach formally in July of 2023.

It appeared that defendant was attempting to find any possible replacement for plaintiff, regardless of skill, qualification, experience, or even desire of the applicant. Upon information and belief, Takacs tried to convince Latoya Bowens (a middle school coach) to apply for plaintiff’s job. Bowens, to plaintiff’s knowledge, declined. It is plaintiff’s understanding Takacs attempted to even convince a boy’s coach to apply for plaintiff’s job. To plaintiff’s knowledge, he declined as well. It was certainly very atypical, contrary to practices or policies, and abnormal that the Superintendent was working directly as a recruiter for plaintiff’s job. To add to the abnormalities, Takacs was – upon information and belief – bypassing and not including the Athletic Director or Principal (normal participants in interviews, hiring, and recruiting. By late August 2023, it had been announced publicly that Takacs had successfully recruited Jamal Elliot who was – by plaintiff’s estimate – approximately 20 years younger than plaintiff. Plaintiff was more qualified than his ultimate replacement, knew the institution better, and had wonderful long-term relationships with the community, students and alumni. It was not until late August of 2023 that plaintiff was finally told conclusively, he was not getting a new contract, not having his employment agreement renewed, and that he was not being hired for the 2023-2024 year based upon his application for his own job that plaintiff submitted (which should have been unnecessary).

The suit continues that the plaintiff “was not given any clear explanation for his separation and only told his contract was not being renewed generally” – and that while the plaintiff “pressed for an explanation or details, he was offered no meaningful information [and] during Board meetings, in response to public inquiries and in response to his requests for information – everyone (to plaintiff’s knowledge) was denied specific details of why plaintiff was terminated (and not renewed).”

It continues:

In the December 2022 – January 2023 timeframe (shortly before age-related inquiries of retirement to plaintiff), Takacs was attempting to investigate plaintiff for completely pre-textual reasons. Plaintiff used terms like ‘Hun’, ‘Honey’ or ‘Babe’ in talking to the team for nearly 40 years. Plaintiff tapped the shoulders of students telling them to change their defensive posture or to crouch lower for defensive positions. Nothing plaintiff said or did could even remotely be construed subjectively or objectively as ‘sexual’ (to the extent this was even the inquiry, as plaintiff is only referencing this matter to show Takacs was personally engaging in a witch-hunt to find any false rationale for plaintiff’s potential termination). Plaintiff had surmised that Takacs seemed to be trying to find out if plaintiff did anything during his entire tenure that could be a pre-textual basis for discipline or removal. To plaintiff’s knowledge, nothing came of any of her pre-textual witch-hunt and plaintiff was not advised of: (a) any concerns; (b) any discipline; or (c) anything that warranted even a discussion with him. In fact, plaintiff was not even interviewed or questioned directly if there were any concerns pre-February of 2023. And plaintiff continued to work on defendant’s premises with students from January through his termination from employment in June of 2023 (further demonstrating there was no reasonable or justifiable concerns). To plaintiff, this was Takacs probing for anything she could possibly find as a false rationale to get rid of plaintiff (as plaintiff was exemplary and well liked in the community).

Takacs was clearly exhibiting an intent to concoct a rationale to get rid of plaintiff, was exhibiting animosity towards plaintiff, was engaging in witch-hunts about possible wrongdoing (causing discomfort amongst many people), making age-related remarks about plaintiff retiring and could not give plaintiff any details on why plaintiff was terminated. Takacs was functioning as a quasi-recruiter asking people who exhibited no prior interest in plaintiff’s job to replace him. And plaintiff was terminated at age 69 and replaced by someone much younger and less qualified, despite strong community, student and alumni opposition to plaintiff’s termination (and non-renewal) from employment. Plaintiff has no doubt whatsoever that he was terminated because of his advanced age.

According to the Pennsylvania Record, Romano is seeking:

• Injunctive relief from the defendant continuing to maintain its illegal policy, practice or custom of discriminating/retaliating against employees and are to be ordered to promulgate an effective policy against such unlawful acts and to adhere thereto;

• Past lost earnings, future lost earnings, salary, pay increases, bonuses, medical and other benefits, training, promotions, pension and seniority, with those benefits having been illegally withheld from the date he first suffered discrimination at the hands of defendant, until the date of verdict;

• Liquidated damages, as permitted by applicable law, in an amount determined by the Court or trier of fact, to be appropriate to punish defendant for its willful, deliberate, malicious and outrageous conduct and to deter defendants or other employers from engaging in such misconduct in the future;

• Any and all other equitable and legal relief as the Court deems just, proper and appropriate (and the maximum extent permitted under laws in which plaintiff is suing under);

• Costs and expenses of this action and reasonable legal fees as provided by applicable federal and state law;

• A verdict in favor of plaintiff to be molded by the Court to maximize the financial recovery available to the plaintiff in light of the caps on certain damages set forth in applicable federal law; and

• A trial by jury.

Romano is represented by Ari Risson Karpf of Karpf Karpf & Cerutti, in Bensalem. Jenkintown School District has not yet retained legal counsel, the Pennsylvania Record said.

The full complaint can be found below:

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Feature photo courtesy of Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame