The attorney representing Tom Benson’s former personal assistant said he was appalled by the Saints owner’s recent testimony that ex-aide Rodney Henry was a mere “porter” when he worked for the team, claiming the term carries troubling racial connotations and labor-related implications central to a lawsuit Henry has filed against his onetime employer.
A porter would be entitled to overtime compensation for any work weeks longer than 40 hours — compensation Henry argues he deserves in a federal back pay and discrimination lawsuit that the Saints are fighting, said his attorney, Christopher Williams.
Williams also said the word “porter” is at best antiquated, given that the term was long used to describe black railway employees who served white, first-class passengers traveling in Pullman cars.
“It’s indicative of the Saints’ attitude toward Mr. Henry,” who is black, Williams said in an interview. “Why pay Mr. Henry overtime? He’s just a porter. Why investigate his claims (including racial discrimination) while he was employed by the organization? He’s just a porter.”
A Saints spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Monday on Williams’ remarks. Nonetheless, the Saints and Benson — also the owner of the NBA’s Pelicans — have previously dismissed Henry’s claims as “ridiculous,” “baseless” and hurtful.
In court papers filed during the past several months, Henry alleges that the Saints broke U.S. labor laws by not paying him overtime, despite his regularly putting in 16-hour days tending to the Bensons’ various needs.
Henry also accused the Saints owner’s wife, Gayle Benson, of making racially derogatory comments about him more than once while he was on the job.
Henry alleges that he complained to the football team’s human resources department about Gayle Benson’s behavior, and she had him fired June 24 in retaliation, ending a tenure that stretched from the 1990s to 2005 and then from 2010 until last summer.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier recently ordered the case to arbitration under NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell because it involves a league employment contract.
But Williams plans to appeal that decision, and he said the transcript of a March 29 deposition of Benson in a separate legal dispute could help Henry’s claims against the Saints, whether they’re resolved in league arbitration or the courts.
Asked under oath whether he spoke to Henry about his decision to cut out his daughter and grandchildren from his succession plans in favor of his wife, Benson replied, “Hell, no, I didn’t talk to him about that kind of thing. ... He was just a porter here.”
Benson was testifying in one of various legal battles that followed his announcement in January 2015 that he was making Gayle his heir, at the expense of daughter Renee Benson and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, who formerly had been in line to inherit control of Benson’s sports teams and other businesses.
Williams said Benson’s remark showed the impropriety of the Saints’ decision to pay Henry an annual salary of $50,000 rather than an hourly wage. Salaried employees are not entitled to overtime pay under federal labor law, yet such a status is reserved for higher-ranking officials and not “porters,” according to Williams.
“It is extremely troubling that a billionaire would knowingly deprive a personal assistant like Mr. Henry of monies owed to them under federal law,” Williams said.
Williams also urged the NBA to investigate Henry’s claims of racial discrimination. He said the general theme of the accusations against apparent future Pelicans owner Gayle Benson is similar to those that were made against former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was given a lifetime NBA ban for making racist comments.
Williams acknowledged there was an audio recording of Sterling making the racially charged remarks, something that Henry doesn’t appear to have. But, without delving into specifics, he said an NBA inquiry would turn up evidence corroborating Henry’s claims.
An NBA spokesman declined comment Monday on Williams’ remarks.
Henry’s case is not directly involved in the Benson family feud, but he was questioned in one of those legal disputes before the Saints fired him.