Jessamine County

Former Asbury coach says she feels vindicated in her civil case

The Kentucky Court of Appeals and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed a Jessamine County jury’s verdict in favor of Debi Powell, former women’s basketball coach at Asbury University.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed a Jessamine County jury’s verdict in favor of Debi Powell, former women’s basketball coach at Asbury University.

Debi Powell, the women’s basketball coach fired by Asbury University in 2008, said she feels “relieved and vindicated” by court decisions that upheld a jury’s verdict against the Wilmore school.

In 2012, a Jessamine County jury awarded Powell $388,325 in her suit against Asbury. Last week, after four years of appeals and 12 percent interest compounded annually from the judgment date, Powell and her attorneys received more than $978,137 in damages and attorney’s fees in the case.

But Powell, 45, acknowledged in an interview this week that finding employment has been difficult.

“What continually motivated me was my faith and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Powell said.

Leila G. O’Carra, a Lexington lawyer who represented Asbury, said she and her client had no comment.

Powell alleged that Asbury had engaged in gender discrimination and had unlawfully retaliated against her when she was fired as head coach in 2008. The jury found that Asbury had not engaged in gender discrimination, but found in favor of Powell’s claim that the school had retaliated against her in response to her complaints about discrimination.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s decision in 2014, as did the Kentucky Supreme Court this spring.

The Supreme Court ruling clarified the standard for such claims. It helps people who have been retaliated against in the workplace, and it opens the door for them to stand up against their employer if they have to proceed with legal action, said Debra Ann Doss, a Lexington lawyer who represented Powell.

“The moral of the story is don’t retaliate against people who bring up issues of discrimination,” Doss said. “Unfortunately, I think that happens out there in the world and it prevents a lot of people from going forward with concerns they either have for themselves or for others because they are fearful of retaliation. I hope this kind of case helps people, and I’m sure Debi does, too.”

Powell is a 1993 graduate of Asbury, where she played basketball, volleyball and softball. Her grandfather, mother, father and brother were also Asbury alumni.

“I’m just extremely grateful to have prevailed at the Supreme Court,” Powell said. “I’ve been waiting since the unanimous jury decision in 2012, and it’s been a wait through the appellate system. So I’m relieved. I’m grateful that truth won. I’m relieved and I feel vindicated. I would never have chosen to go through this whole ordeal if it were not for my professional goal. It’s been extremely difficult and I’m still learning to live in the reality that it really is over.”

Powell is now a case manager for Kentucky Refugee Ministries Inc., a nonprofit which resettles refugees in the Lexington area. She’s been with that nonprofit since February.

She also is a private coach, which means she provides individual coaching for athletes. She connects with athletes through the use of CoachUp, an online app that pairs young people looking for private coaches. (Steph Curry of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors is an investor in that app.)

Powell acknowledges that she has not found another full-time coaching job since she filed suit against Asbury.

“That’s the most painful part of this whole process,” she said. “I knew going into the lawsuit that employers would potentially not look at me in the future because I chose to act on what was true and not just walk away and resign. I chose to do what requires the most courage. I just thought this was the right thing to do.

“That’s one of the ongoing challenges that I face going forward. I may never get to do what I actually love again.”