Tom Benson’s use of term ‘porter’ to describe ex-aide has racial connotations, attorney says _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson looks over the Smoothie King Center with former longtime personal assistant Rodney Henry. Henry is now suing the Saints.

Tom Benson’s former personal assistant, Rodney Henry, and the Saints are scheduled to talk Monday about possibly settling a federal lawsuit in which Henry alleges that he was racially discriminated against and worked loads of unpaid overtime.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson is set to host the closed-door talks at 2 p.m. in New Orleans’ federal courthouse. The talks could produce an agreement resolving the differences between Henry and the Saints.

In his lawsuit, Henry accused Gayle Benson, the Saints owner’s wife, of making racially charged comments about him on multiple occasions while he was working. Henry alleged that Gayle Benson then had him fired June 24 after he complained to the football team’s human resources department about her behavior.

Additionally, Henry accused the Saints of breaking U.S. labor laws by not paying him overtime even though he regularly put in 16-hour days servicing the Bensons’ various needs.

Henry said the Saints put him on a yearly salary of $50,000 rather than an hourly wage, precluding him from collecting overtime pay under federal law. The suit said such a status is normally given to high-ranking executives, which Henry was not. Therefore, it said, he should have been paid the typical 1½ times his regular salary when he logged more than 40 hours a week.

In court records, Henry has cited an August 2004 interoffice memo that included him on a list of Saints employees entitled to overtime pay.

Henry also noted in his lawsuit that his work agreement with the Saints guaranteed him twice his annual salary if he was fired by someone other than Benson, who also owns the NBA’s Pelicans.

Henry alleged that he was terminated by Pat McKinney, the Saints’ human resources director, but did not get the extra compensation.

The Saints’ court filings assert that Henry’s work agreement with the team required him to have any employment-related issues arbitrated in front of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. They have denied all of the racial allegations made against Gayle Benson, calling them “ridiculous” and “baseless.”

Henry claims his Saints work agreement was invalid and that it is within his rights to seek relief in the courts.

Henry, who lives in Metairie, started working as Benson’s personal assistant in the 1990s but left for a while shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He resumed his job as Benson’s personal assistant a few months after the Saints won the 2010 Super Bowl.

His lawsuit is not part of a legal battle that broke out last year after Benson revealed that he was dropping his daughter and grandchildren from his succession plans in favor of his wife and also was removing them from their roles in all his businesses.

Nonetheless, Henry was questioned as part of a lawsuit filed by the relatives challenging whether Benson was mentally competent to make such important decisions. Benson has received favorable rulings in that suit from two courts.

Henry was fired shortly after the case was tried behind closed doors in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.