Image via NBA.com
Yesterday, two former Brooklyn Nets’ equipment attendants sued the franchise in United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleging they were wrongfully terminated and discriminated against based on their race. Specifically, plaintiffs bring this lawsuit to recover money damages, as well as for declaratory, equitable, and injunctive relief to redress the Nets’ alleged violation of Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the NYC Human Rights Law. The plaintiffs are Edward Bolden, Jr. and Juwan Williams.
The complaint can be reviewed here:
The underlying facts of the complaint have already been known, as the two released a public statement earlier this year on Instagram. They said “[m]yself and my colleague have reason to believe that we were terminated due to racial bias, as well as for our beliefs and stance on the Black Lives Matter movement." "There have been numerous inconsistencies in the reasoning behind our termination as well as acknowledgment of improper handling by the franchise.”
However, at that time, they only hinted at the possibility for litigation. Instead, they had hoped to find redress through a partnership with the National Basketball Players' Association ("NBPA") to form a labor union for attendants and ball boys. The Nets denied that Bolden and Williams' termination had anything to do with race. “The decision on whether or not to rehire seasonal part-time employees is an organizational matter that is carefully and thoughtfully evaluated,” a Nets spokesperson said in a statement. “We are entirely comfortable with our decision not to rehire these two individuals.”
It appears that Bolden and Williams were not satisfied with the results of their public statement, as they have now filed suit in the Eastern District of New York.
According to the complaint, Bolden and Williams both began their employment with the Nets as ball boys, one in 2012 and the other in 2014. They stayed with the Nets and were eventually promoted to manager and co-team captain of the equipment team. The two allege that their supervisor, Joe Cuomo, made it clear that they would never progress past their roles but went out of his way to help white employees. The plaintiffs, who are black, were told on March 8, 2020 (the Nets’ final home game of last season) that that was their last day ever working for the Nets or at the Barclays Center.
While the plaintiffs were not given a reason for their termination, they strongly believe the decision was motivated by race. “Throughout the entirety of Bolden's employment, he was vocal about cultural racial disparities – specifically, around police brutality. Williams also participated in these discussions and was vocal on these issues. Whenever Bolden mentioned these issues in front of Cuomo, he received significant push-back. Cuomo also expressed his discontent when Williams and others, including NBA players, engaged in a peaceful form of protest against racism by wearing the hood on their hoodie before games.”
The plaintiffs included some of Cuomo’s social media posts in the complaint, in an effort to show that he has made some of his anti-social justice movement sentiments public:
In the complaint, plaintiffs say they were shocked to learn of their termination as they had fulfilled all obligations in 2020 prior to the suspension of the NBA season and they were among the Nets’ longest tenured team attendants. They claim Nets’ team members and other staff were equally stunned to learn that the plaintiffs had been let go from their employment. Plaintiffs took the issue directly to the Nets’ General Manager, Sean Marks to convey their concerns. On November 30, 2020, Marks told plaintiffs they were a joy to be around and asked if he (Marks) could conduct an independent investigation into the termination decisions, including speaking to Cuomo.
Ryan Gisriel, Nets’ Director of Basketball Operations shared the results of the investigation with plaintiffs. Gisriel explained that, after the investigation and speaking to Cuomo, the terminations decisions were being upheld. Gisriel further shared that Cuomo justified the decisions not to have them employed going forward by labeling – for the first time – plaintiffs as “lazy” and stating they were unable to follow directions. Plaintiffs claim to have never been called lazy once during their time as employees, and had been praised with compliments of the exact opposite.
Bolden further alleges that Cuomo or someone within the Nets organization retaliated against him after the end of his employment with the Nets by seeking to blacklist or prevent him from working for another NBA team. According to the complaint, in late-September 2021, Bolden reached out to the equipment manager at another NBA team about working there as a team attendant. In response to plaintiff’s inquiry, the equipment manager for that NBA team stated in writing as follows: “Let me check with my GM over here. With the way stuff went down on your way out of Brooklyn I have to run this by the powers that be over here.” Thereafter, plaintiff never heard back from that equipment manager or NBA team.
Plaintiffs demand a trial by jury on all issues of fact, their claims, and alleged damages. In their prayer for relief, plaintiffs demand a declaratory judgment that the Nets’ conduct and practices violated U.S., NYS, and NYC laws. They seek an injunction and order permanently restraining the Nets from engaging in such unlawful conduct. They also seek an order directing the Nets to take affirmative action as is deemed necessary to make sure unlawful employment practices are eliminated moving forward. They demand reinstatement as employees.
Bolden and Williams further demand an award of punitive damages and compensatory damages for pecuniary losses, emotional distress, pain and suffering, and other nonpecuniary losses as allowable. Finally, the seek costs and attorneys’ fees for this litigation.
Could this case be the next pin to fall in the accountability era? We have seen organizational shakeup in Portland, as an investigation was launched into the Trail Blazers’ workplace environment under President of Basketball Operations, Neil Olshey. That has, thus far, led to the resignation of team President of Business Operations, Chris McGowan. There are also allegations of sexual harassment, racism, and misogyny in the Phoenix Suns organization, centered around team owner Robert Sarver.
Now, we have the Brooklyn Nets and allegations of racial discrimination. Granted, this controversy stems out of the equipment team, as opposed to ownership or the front office, but management does oversee all operations and conducted an internal investigation. Conduct Detrimental will track this case in anticipation of the Nets' answer.
Jason Morrin is a third-year law student at Hofstra Law School in New York. He is the President of Hofstra’s Sports and Entertainment Law Society. Additionally, he is a Law Clerk at Geragos & Geragos. He can be found on Twitter @Jason_Morrin.