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Detroit Tigers Sued for Discrimination

The Detroit Tigers’ 2023 season is off to a rough start. To compound a losing record, the Tigers are being sued for discrimination by a longtime former Tigers clubhouse manager who claims he was fired based on his age and race in violation of state and federal employment laws.[i]

Nature of Discrimination Claims

John Nelson, a Black former Visiting Team Clubhouse Manager, initially sued the Tigers in November 2022, alleging age and race discrimination. Nelson, who began his employment with the Tigers as a bat boy in 1979, claims that he was abruptly terminated in October 2021 after 33 years of loyal service and replaced by a much younger White assistant. At the time of his termination, Nelson was 58 years old and the only clubhouse manager of color in all of major league baseball.

Nelson recently amended his Complaint adding a claim of race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nelson’s Amended Complaint alleges violations of federal law under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and state law under Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Nelson is seeking equitable and monetary relief including, but not limited to, compensatory and punitive damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

Focus on Performance Evaluations

According to the Amended Complaint, Nelson was blindsided by the termination and the reason given for his termination. Nelson was told that he was fired based on the 2017-2018 survey results completed by visiting ball clubs. The surveys noted deficiencies with the facilities and services provided by the Tigers.

Nelson claims that the Tigers’ reliance on the 2017-2018 survey is pretextual and that he was really terminated based on his age and race. According to Nelson, he consistently received positive written performance evaluations. The only exceptions were for his 2017 and 2018 baseball seasons, which noted that improvement was needed in certain areas. However, Nelson claims that the evaluation also recognized that much of the criticism was beyond his control and based on substandard facilities the Tigers provided visiting teams compared to other ballparks.

Moreover, Nelson alleges that comments throughout the evaluation noted that he had successfully addressed complaints from the surveys and recognized his excellent evaluations from prior years. No formal evaluation was given for the 2020-2021 seasons. Nelson alleges that he had no reason to believe that his job was in jeopardy.

As further circumstantial evidence, the Amended Complaint references an alleged racial comment by a White coach to a Black bat boy in 2017, other allegations suggesting that the Tigers are racially biased, and claims that MLB is becoming increasingly closed to African American players. The heart of Nelson’s claim, however, appears to be the inconsistency between his performance evaluations and the reason given for his termination.

Takeaway for Employers

The burden-shifting framework for discrimination claims[ii] ultimately requires the plaintiff to prove that the employer's stated reason for termination was pretextual or false. As the Nelson v. Detroit Tigers lawsuit illustrates, performance evaluations are often key pieces of evidence in discrimination suits based on termination for poor performance. If Nelson is able to prove that his termination is at odds with his performance evaluations, he may be able to avoid summary judgment and have a jury decide his case.

Fundamentals are important in baseball. They are also important in human resources. Here are some basic but essential tips about using performance evaluations and managing performance:

#1 Avoid curveballs: Be honest. Do not overinflate an employee’s rating. Give concrete examples of performance problems including dates and detailed facts.

#2 Access to front office: Clearly define expectations and explain the consequences if expectations are not met. Allow the employee to give feedback and offer tools to help the employee succeed. Keep your front office door open.

#3. Actively coach: Communicate with employees about their performance throughout the year – not just at a formal evaluation or at the end of the fiscal year. The evaluation should not be the first time an employee receives a compliment or learns of a serious performance problem.

#4. Enforce team rules: Follow-up with an employee after a performance evaluation if performance dips or does not improve. If necessary, place the employee on a performance improvement plan that clearly outlines goals, expectations, and consequences. Discipline employees for misconduct or violation of rules.

#5 Log performance: Terminating employment creates a litigation risk. It is important to have documentation that supports the legitimacy of the decision, such as records of performance problems, counseling sessions, written warnings, and other efforts made to improve performance. After a counseling meeting, have the employee acknowledge in writing that the employee met to discuss performance, understands the performance problem, and knows what is expected going forward.


The Nelson v. Detroit Tigers lawsuit presents an important reminder of the importance of accurately documenting an employee's inadequate job performance. Indeed, an employer’s ability to prevail in a discrimination lawsuit largely depends on its ability to support its decision through documented performance deficiencies, such as performance evaluations. By following these tips, employers can go a long way to ensuring that performance evaluations are accurate and that they can defend employment decisions based on performance.

Ken Winkler is a shareholder at Berman Fink Van Horn in Atlanta, where he counsels employers and business owners on employment law and compliance, including workplace issues such as harassment (#MeToo) and discrimination; ADA, FMLA and other employment laws governing the workplace; employment restrictions (non-competes); and employment and business litigation. Ken obtained his law degree (1993) and B.S.B.A (1990) from The Ohio State University. You can read his blog, SportsFansGuide2HR, and connect with him via LinkedIn and Twitter @kwinklerbfvlaw.


[i] Nelson v. Detroit Tigers, Inc., Case No. 2:22-cv-12822 (E.D. Mich.); Tony Paul, Fired clubhouse manager sues Tigers, alleging racial discrimination, The Detroit News (Nov. 21, 2022, 4:22 PM), [ii] McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).

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