The Saints on Wednesday dismissed allegations that owner Tom Benson’s former longtime personal assistant was fired for complaining about racial discrimination against him by Benson’s wife as “ridiculous” and “baseless.”
“Both Tom and (wife) Gayle Benson are extremely hurt” by the accusations Rodney Henry made in federal court papers filed Tuesday, according to a statement from Saints spokesman Greg Bensel. “The Bensons considered Mr. Henry to be a part of their family, providing for him and his children for some 20 years, and they are both very disappointed that he has decided to assert these accusations.”
Henry’s attorney, Christopher Williams, stood by his client’s claims, calling them “legitimate workplace issues” that needed to be corrected.
Henry, a Metairie resident, first sued the Saints in federal court in November, claiming that the team broke U.S. labor laws by not paying him overtime even though he regularly put in 16-hour days serving both Tom and Gayle Benson.
He also lodged a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that he was fired in June after he told the Saints’ Human Resources Department that Gayle Benson had made racist comments to and about him.
In December, the EEOC sent Henry a letter saying that, based on the information provided, the agency could not conclude whether there had been any violations of the law. But the agency noted that the letter also didn’t clear the Saints of wrongdoing, and it told Henry, 60, he had the right to sue the team for damages on those claims, if he wanted.
The Saints last week responded to Henry’s lawsuit about overtime by contending that he had signed a work agreement requiring him to allow National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to arbitrate any employment disputes he had with the team. They said other employee lawsuits involving NFL teams had ended up in arbitration with the commissioner under agreements similar to Henry’s.
On Tuesday, Henry amended his November lawsuit by adding the Bensons as individual defendants and including allegations that he was dismissed after being called a “black son of a bitch” on at least two occasions by Gayle Benson and then reporting her to HR.
Henry also claimed that he overheard Gayle Benson at one point tell another Saints official that she would “get rid of” Henry.
Saints HR Director Pat McKinney fired Henry on June 24, explaining that the assistant’s position had been eliminated, court records show.
Saints spokesman Bensel said the longtime employee’s dismissal was “difficult” but was done to preserve “the best interest of the company.”
Henry also has asserted that he had been promised he could not be fired by anyone except Tom Benson personally without receiving $100,000 — twice his annual salary. Henry said he never received the extra compensation.
Williams said he and his client will contend that the employment agreement Henry signed requiring him to ask Goodell to arbitrate any disputes with the Saints was invalid.
He said Goodell can’t be an impartial arbitrator because he was appointed to his eight-figure-salary job by Benson and the rest of the NFL’s owners. Williams cited a Missouri Supreme Court ruling last year that he said sent a former St. Louis Rams equipment manager’s age discrimination case against the team to a neutral arbitrator because the court essentially found having Goodell involved presented the risk of bias.
The NFL on Wednesday did not respond to a request for comment about whether the allegations of racial discrimination against Gayle Benson might be investigated by the league.
The twice-widowed Benson announced a year ago that upon his death he wanted to leave control of the Saints, the NBA’s Pelicans and the rest of his nearly $2 billion business empire to Gayle, his third wife, instead of to his daughter and his grandchildren, as had long been the plan.
After Benson — now 88 — revealed his change of plans, his spurned relatives filed a lawsuit questioning his mental competency to make such a decision. A judge ruled in Benson’s favor, and an appeal will be heard in the case Thursday.
Henry alleged in his suit that the Saints timed his dismissal so that it happened after Benson was ruled mentally competent.
Henry began working as Benson’s personal assistant in the 1990s but left for a time shortly after Hurricane Katrina. He resumed his post a few months after the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.