Explosive allegations came out of Los Angeles county in early March as longtime General Manager of the Los Angeles Sparks, Penny Toler, filed a 10 count civil lawsuit against the Sparks, former team president Christine Simmons, and 50 other unnamed individuals.
Toler’s complaint alleges that her October 2019 firing for allegedly using a racial slur was, instead, a result of gender discrimination and retaliation for speaking out against an extramarital relationship between Simmons and team managing partner and governor Eric Holoman. She also alleged that the head coach from 2015-2018, not named in the lawsuit but known to be current Dallas Wings head coach Brian Agler, used offensive language and engaged in a relationship with a player.
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According to the lawsuit, Toler’s contract began April 1, 2017 and was set to expire March 31, 2020. It was further alleged that there were only three clauses that would allow for her to be fired: 1) failure to perform her duties; 2) intentional, illegal, or grossly negligent conduct that could hurt the Sparks monetarily or otherwise; and 3) death, mental, or physical disability. What does that mean? She could not be fired because the Sparks felt like it.
Toler told the Associated Press she tried to work with the Sparks for several months to find a solution to money that she alleges she is owed but ultimately felt she had no choice but to file suit.
Anytime allegations like this come out, it’s important to remember a few things about the legal process and what that means. With so many questions remaining, we examine some of the biggest ones below.
When will Defendants respond?
Under the California Rules of Civil Procedure, Defendants have 30 days from the time they were served with the complaint to respond. Often, the time to respond is extended by a mutual agreement of the parties, so a response is not always guaranteed within that time.
What impact does COVID-19 have on the case?
As of now, the courthouse where the case was filed is closed until April 16, 2020. This does not have an impact on the time that Defendants have to respond, but due to the ongoing uncertainty that COVID-19 will have on the court system and other matters being pushed back by the courts, it is real possibility that the timeline for this case will be pushed back.
Who is the lawsuit against?
The complaint itself is against the Sparks organization, Christine Simmons, and up to 50 unnamed individuals. These unnamed people are listed as Defendant “Does,” also called fictitious defendants. These are corporations or individuals, whose names or identities cannot be determined at the time the lawsuit is filed but, that using the discovery process of trial, may become known. Many claims have a short statute of limitations, i.e. the time you have to file a suit by so by adding fictitious defendants, Toler is keeping her options open.
What are the allegations involved?
The lawsuit itself lists 10 counts in the complaint, from breach of contract to gender discrimination. Toler alleges that she is owed pay for unused vacation days, that her termination was without cause and due to gender discrimination and/or retaliation, and violations of labor and employment law in California.
Who else is involved in the lawsuit?
A number of recognizable names make their way into the facts of the complaint, including Sparks star Candace Parker. Toler alleges that at the end of the 2019 season, she considered trading Parker, but due to Simmons’ close relationship with Parker, Simmons influenced Holoman to breach the contract with Toler which significantly decreased the likelihood that Parker be traded.
Although he is not named in the suit, current Dallas Wings head coach and former Sparks head coach Brian Agler is named by inference. The lawsuit refers to “sexually inappropriate conduct of the male head coach of the Sparks” from 2015 and 2018. Agler was the Sparks head coach from 2015-2018. The inappropriate conduct was in relation to a player on the team but no player was named, nor can their name be inferred by the facts in the lawsuit.
What are some defenses the Sparks can make?
In the event that Toler’s claim for retaliation can prove that she 1) engaged in a protected activity (reporting inappropriate conduct), (2) she was subjected to an adverse employment action (she was fired), and (3) a causal link between her reporting inappropriate conduct and her firing, the Sparks can present evidence that they had a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its action. In this case, that would be Toler’s alleged use of a racial slur after a Sparks game.
The Sparks can also claim that due to Toler’s alleged use of a racial slur, she was rightfully fired according to the terms of her contract and, therefore, she is not owed any backpay or unused vacation days.
What to expect going forward?
After an Answer is filed by the Defendants in the case, the parties will partake in what is called the Discovery phase of litigation. This is where the parties exchange information about evidence and witnesses relevant to the try the case. This also means that each side is legally required to turn over evidence that could be potentially damaging to their side’s case.
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