The National Hockey League said in court documents that it is continuing to investigate allegations made in a lawsuit filed by two former off-ice officials who allege they were fired for reporting a colleague who used racist and sexually charged language for years while working for the league.
In a 15-page statement of defence filed Mar. 18 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, NHL lawyer Emily Chase-Sosnoff wrote that a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed in January by David Walkowiak and James Watkins, former crew officials who worked for the NHL during Lightning games in Tampa Bay, has no merit.
“[The NHL] is continuing to investigate plaintiffs’ allegations,” Chase-Sosnoff wrote. “All employment decisions regarding or affecting [Walkowiak and Watkins] were based upon legitimate, non-discriminatory, and reasonable business reasons that were in no way related to [their] alleged protected activity.”
Chase-Sosnoff asked a judge to demand the plaintiffs pay the NHL’s legal costs related to the case.
Walkowiak and Watkins are seeking unspecified punitive damages and have asked a court to demand they be rehired by the NHL. They allege 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.
The two former officials alleged that during their tenures with the NHL, colleague Pat DeLorenzo Jr. repeatedly used racist language at work in reference to the NHL’s African-American hockey players and the African-American military veteran, Sonya Bryson-Kirksey, who sings the national anthem at Lightning games at Amalie Arena.
Walkowiak and Watkins allege that they reported DeLorenzo's alleged behaviour in November and December 2019 to Ron Brace, then the NHL’s crew chief in Tampa. They allege Brace failed to take any action for several years.
Walkowiak and Watkins claim that Watkins also reported DeLorenzo’s alleged behaviour to NHL vice-president of human resources Patrice Distler and Katherine Watson, an NHL lawyer, in December 2019. 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.
The 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 video recordings of DeLorenzo’s racially discriminatory behaviour.
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 has refused to provide Walkowiak with a copy of the message, the lawsuit alleged.
In the NHL’s statement of defence, Chase-Sosnoff confirmed that Watkins reported to Distler and Watson about DeLorenzo’s alleged comments and that DeLorenzo and Brace were fired in January 2020.
Watkins and Walkowiak were terminated the following month, Chase-Sosnoff wrote.
She wrote that the NHL has received a number of text messages sent between and among Tampa crew members.
"If any improper, illegal, retaliatory, or interfering acts were taken by any of [the NHLs] employees against plaintiffs, which [NHL] expressly denies, they were outside the course and scope of that person’s employment, contrary to [the NHL's] policies, and were not ratified, confirmed, or approved by [the NHL]," Chase-Sosnoff wrote.
“[The NHL] admits only that it properly terminated DeLorenzo, Brace, and that it properly terminated Walkowiak, and Watkins upon learning of their wrongful behavior, including for their involvement in a text message exchange in which they made homophobic and racist statements,” she wrote.