Two former National Hockey League off-ice officials allege in a newly filed lawsuit that they were fired for reporting a colleague who used racist and sexually charged language for years while working for the league.
In a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, lawyers for David Walkowiak and James Watkins, former crew officials who worked for the NHL during Lightning games in Tampa Bay, wrote that Walkowiak and Watkins should be rehired by the NHL and receive punitive damages for their treatment.
The amount the two former officials are suing for is not specified. The NHL has not filed a statement of defence, and their allegations have not been proven in court. An NHL spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The legal complaint is similar to another lawsuit filed against the NHL in November 2020 by a former NHL official in Tampa who settled his wrongful dismissal case with the league last year.
Walkowiak and Watkins alleged in their wrongful dismissal lawsuit that both were fired on Feb. 27, 2020. Watkins had worked for the NHL since 1998 while Walkowiak was hired in September 2005.
During their tenure with the NHL, the two former officials alleged that colleague Pat DeLorenzo Jr. repeatedly used racist language at work.
“DeLorenzo made negative racial comments about [NHL] employees, including but not limited to [NHL]’s African-American hockey players and the African-American veteran, Sonya Bryson-Kirksey, who sings the national anthem at Tampa Bay Lightning games at Amalie Arena,” the lawsuit alleges.
Walkowiak and Watkins allege that they reported DeLorenzo's behaviour to Ron Brace, the NHL’s former crew chief in Tampa. They allege Brace failed to take any action for several years. The lawsuit says the plaintiffs reported DeLorenzo's behaviour in November and December 2019.
“The racial comments were so offensive and so pervasive that [Sullivan] began recording DeLorenzo’s racial comments at work,” the lawsuit says.
Brace told TSN in an interview in November 2020 that he never heard DeLorenzo using racist language.
Besides working for the NHL, DeLorenzo also has worked in a Tampa tire and auto shop owned by his family. An employee in that shop told TSN on Tuesday that DeLorenzo was not healthy and was not available for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Watkins in December 2019 reported DeLorenzo’s alleged behaviour to NHL vice-president of human resources Patrice Distler and Katherine Watson, an NHL lawyer. Watkins alleged he told the NHL executives that there was video evidence of DeLorenzo’s alleged racist statements.
Distler and Watson later contacted Walkowiak after speaking with Watkins, the lawsuit says, adding both plaintiffs were worried they might be fired for reporting the incidents.
“[Walkowiak and Watkins] knew that a recent previous female off-ice official from another city was terminated by [the NHL] shortly after reporting sexual harassment at work,” the lawsuit says.
Both plaintiffs allege that after Distler and Watson promised them that they would be protected under the NHL’s whistle-blower policy, the league was provided with six recordings of DeLorenzo’s racially discriminatory behaviour.
After the NHL fired Brace and DeLorenzo on Jan. 2, 2020, Walkowiak and Watkins were fired on Feb. 27, 2020, for allegedly being involved in a group text message thread of DeLorenzo’s years earlier.
The NHL refused to provide Walkowiak with a copy of the message, the lawsuit alleged.
“Despite Plaintiffs’ opposition and multiple instances of protected activity, [the NHL] did nothing to stop the racially discriminatory comments that were broadcast to its employees and crew every night on its communication system and in the booth shared by the off-ice officials,” the lawsuit says. “Instead, only after being confronted with video evidence of the wrongful behaviour, [the NHL] terminated DeLorenzo and Brace, and then terminated the whistleblowers, including Plaintiffs Walkowiak and Watkins.”