The New Orleans Saints violated federal labor law by failing to pay overtime wages to the former personal assistant of late owner Tom Benson, according to an NFL arbitrator who this week ordered the team to cough up nearly $400,000.
The arbitrator ordered the Saints to pay $100,000 in overtime to the ex-aide, Rodney Henry, as well as a fee of about $105,000 that Henry's contract guaranteed him if he was dismissed by someone other than Benson.
Arbitrator Harold Henderson also tacked on nearly $190,000 to cover Henry’s attorneys’ fees during a legal battle that began three years ago when Henry was fired, documents obtained by The Advocate show.
Henderson had previously rejected Henry’s claims that he had been fired from his post in retaliation for, among other things, complaining to a superior that Benson’s wife, Gayle, had made racially derogatory comments about him while he was working.
Henry is black. Gayle Benson, the owner of the Saints and the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans since her husband’s death in March, is white.
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Henry’s attorneys, Chris Williams and Gary Bizal, did not comment on the arbitrator's ruling. Neither did the Saints, who can appeal the decision in federal court.
Henry was Benson’s personal assistant through the 1990s and briefly left his position after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He resumed the job under Benson after the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010 but was fired in 2015.
He filed a lawsuit in November 2015 accusing the Saints of failing to pay him federally required overtime, even though he said he regularly put in 16-hour days tending to the Bensons’ various needs. Henry also argued that he was owed double his pay for the year, plus interest, if someone other than Tom Benson dismissed him.
Henry was informed of his firing by Saints’ human resources director Pat McKinney and didn’t receive the extra compensation.
The team disputed all of the allegations, including the assertions of racial discrimination that Henry added later.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans then ruled that the case first needed to be tried by an NFL arbitrator, which sent the matter to Henderson.
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There were a handful of eye-catching moments during the ensuing proceeding, which involved numerous depositions, a three-day hearing and lengthy legal briefs.
For example, responding to questions on whether she had the ability to get Henry fired, Gayle Benson replied: “I did not work for the Saints organization. … I don’t have any power here. I’m Mrs. Benson. I’m married to my husband, and that’s it. The employees aren’t going to listen to me.”
That portrayal contrasts with Tom Benson’s public statements that Gayle Benson had long been taking “an active part” and “working with” the leaders of his sports franchises, as she prepared to inherit control of his billion-dollar business empire after he cut his daughter and grandchildren from a previous marriage out of his life and businesses.
The Saints called Henry’s recollection of events into question by establishing that he had indeed received certain documents from the team when he was hired, despite his initial claim that the papers were never given to him.
Ultimately, Henderson wrote in his ruling that Henry’s statements about the hours he put in on the job may have been “inexact or approximate” but still were credible.
The arbitrator also said the provision calling for Henry to be paid a fee if someone other than Tom Benson fired him appeared to be open to conflicting interpretations. But he said “the law is clear that ambiguities in a contract are to be interpreted against the drafter of the subject language,” which in this case was the Saints.
Henderson handed down his ruling on the money owed to Henry in April. The decision on attorney’s fees came Wednesday.
Henry’s case was separate from the complex series of legal clashes that erupted when Benson revealed a few years ago that he was dropping his daughter and grandchildren as his heirs in favor of Gayle, his third wife.
However, Henry gave a deposition as part of a case in which the estranged relatives challenged Benson’s mental competency to alter his succession plans. The contents of the deposition have never been made public. Henry was fired six days after a New Orleans judge ruled in Benson’s favor.