The former longtime personal assistant to Tom Benson who claims he is owed a significant amount of back pay alleges in new court papers that his dismissal this summer was timed to occur after he was questioned in a mental competency lawsuit filed against the Saints and Pelicans owner early last year.
The filing Tuesday also alleged Rodney Henry was fired after complaining that Benson’s wife, Gayle, had made “racially derogatory comments to and about” him.
A Saints spokesman said the team had no comment about Henry’s claims.
Henry originally sued the Saints in New Orleans federal court in November, alleging that the team broke U.S. labor laws by not paying him overtime even though he regularly put in 16-hour days servicing the Bensons’ various needs.
According to Henry, the Saints put him on an annual salary of $50,000 rather than an hourly wage, exempting him from collecting overtime pay under federal law. But the suit contends such a status normally is reserved for high-ranking executives, which Henry was not, and he therefore should have been paid the typical 11/2 times his regular salary on the frequent occasions he had to work more than 40 hours a week.
Last week, the Saints countered by saying Henry had signed a work agreement requiring him to turn to National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to arbitrate any disputes he had concerning his employment with the team.
Henry responded on Tuesday by adding the Bensons as individual defendants in an amended lawsuit that now alleges he was routinely “treated ... with disdain and disrespect” by Gayle, often over the objections of her husband.
One example supposedly happened at the Saints’ 2014 training camp at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Henry alleges that Gayle Benson forced him to “stay in a small room which had no air conditioning and no towels ... (and) only had bunk beds designed for children to sleep in.”
Henry alleges that Tom Benson was “outraged” when he learned of Henry’s accommodations and, in front of Gayle, told him to move to a full-sized room.
According to the suit, Gayle then said the smaller room “was perfect” for Henry, and once her husband left the room, she screamed at the assistant, “I hate you.”
Later that summer, the suit alleges, Tom Benson asked Henry to take him to the hospital. Henry said he obeyed and then unsuccessfully tried to contact Gayle Benson.
Once Tom Benson was settled at the hospital, the lawsuit alleges, Gayle Benson called Henry and asked, “Why did you take my husband to the hospital, you black son of a bitch?”
Henry claims in the lawsuit that Tom Benson told his wife, “Darling, darling, he was trying to help me.”
The suit says Gayle Benson went into Henry’s office days later and accused him of leaking information to Benson’s granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc, who — along with her mother and brother — would soon become involved in a complex legal battle against the Saints and Pelicans owner.
Further, the suit alleges that Henry overheard Gayle Benson refer to him by the same racial term she supposedly used after Benson was taken to the hospital. The suit says Henry also heard Gayle Benson say to a Saints official that she would “get rid of” her husband’s assistant.
Henry said he complained to the Saints’ human resources department and received assurances that the situation would be investigated. But instead, he said, he was further isolated from Benson and his duties were reduced.
Early last year, the twice-widowed Benson announced that he was cutting personal and professional ties with his daughter and grandchildren and that upon his death he wanted control of his nearly $2 billion business empire to pass to Gayle — his third wife — instead of his estranged relatives, as had long been the plan.
His daughter, Renee Benson, and her children — Rita and Ryan LeBlanc — then filed a lawsuit in New Orleans Civil District Court alleging that Benson had been manipulated into estranging himself from his relatives while in a weakened mental and physical state. Other related legal battles began playing out in Texas probate court as well as federal court in New Orleans.
Henry’s filing claims that he was privately questioned as a witness in the New Orleans civil court lawsuit. Henry claims the Saints’ general counsel instructed him to meet with Benson’s lead attorney in the case before the questioning.
But Henry said he didn’t want to meet with attorneys on either side of the matter. He returned to work after the questioning, or deposition, only to be further “ostracized ... and isolated” from Tom Benson until he was fired June 24 by Pat McKinney, the Saints’ director of human resources. That was shortly after Judge Kern Reese ruled in favor of Benson in the mental competency case.
The suit doesn’t detail what Henry said in his deposition.
Henry said he worked with the Saints as Benson’s personal assistant for 25 years before his dismissal. Before that, he spent five years working for Benson in other capacities beginning about 1985.
An appeal of the ruling in the mental competency case is scheduled to be heard in the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal on Thursday.