DIGNITY AFTER FOOTBALL
March 3 , 2009
Former NFLPA Employee,
Longtime friend and advisor to DAF
Is Governmental Oversight Necessary at the NFLPA?
As a Union representative and former NFLPA employee, I think that I am qualified to answer this question. I have been involved in over 25 years of litigation against the NFLPA so my story is lengthy, but read this and then “you make the call.”
On the administrative law level, I was hired in 1983, reduced-in-force and fired in 1988, reinstated in 1997, denied reinstatement in 1997, reinstated by court order in 1999 and fired again in 2003. On the judicial level, in the U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, the NFLPA was found to have retaliated against me in violation of Title VII law via a complaint at EEOC.
Grievances, hearings, arbitrations, subpoenas, discovery, depositions, court hearings, motions, and appeals took place in twenty (20) out of twenty-five (25) years of the late Gene Upshaw’s administration and spanned three (3) past presidents’ terms on the NFLPA Executive Committee, George Martin (1988-1989), Mike Kenn (1989-1996); and, Trace Armstrong (1996-2004) and continuing.
The key NFLPA officials involved were: the late Gene Upshaw, General Counsel Richard Berthelsen, outside counsel, Attorney Joseph “Chip” Yablonski, Human Resources Director Mary Moran, Comptroller Bill Garner, Assistant Executive Director Doug Allen and the Director of Benefits, Miki Yaras Davis.
Although I prevailed in arbitration and court, my legal fees mounted and the NFLPA had deep pockets to drag out the process over the years through denials, delays and appeals.
Litigation is currently pending in a complaint that was filed in 2000 on my behalf, by Local 2 OPEIU against the NFLPA. I should still be an NFLPA employee with seniority, medical, pension and retirement benefits.
From 1984 until 1988 I was the Chief Shop Steward for the bargaining unit/support staff. In March 1988, after the 1987 strike, the Executive Committee President and a Vice President approached the staff about business practices at the NFLPA. The employees divulged concerns with the assertion of confidentiality. In fact this “business” inquisition turned into a fishing expedition/investigation or “loyalty” test that resulted in the sudden and unexpected loss of jobs via a reduction-in-force. We were threatened to be fired if we filed grievances or took other legal actions. Grievances were filed and we were fired. EEOC complaints, DC Hourly Wage and Unemployment hearings followed.
At a later date, the court determined that the reduction-in-force was a subterfuge to a firing because of the way that the dismissals were handled. Management turned legitimate business concerns and complaints into a he said/she said fiasco. The conversations were protected legal and union activity that included concerns about promotions, discipline and racial diversity
After challenging my firing in arbitration (1988) and winning (1989), the NFLPA denied the jurisdiction of the arbitrator, sued the arbitrator, the union and myself in Superior Court for wrongful conduct and boycott the second required hearing (1995). That ploy did not succeed, except to further fill the NFLPA lawyers’ pockets and cause us to spend more money. The following year (1996), I also prevailed in court regarding Title VII retaliation by the NFLPA.
In 1997 the arbitrator returned me to work. I reported to work and was refused entrance because the NFLPA filed another appeal.
NFLPA management and its representatives have succeeded in spending over a million dollars to discredit me - an African American, college-educated professional as well as a highly respected attorney arbitrator of like heritage.
In 1999, I was reinstated to my job, with seniority, by court order, which enforced the arbitration decision. After being fired in 1988 I returned to work, eleven years later, in 1999. At this point, with Title VII litigation continuing since 1990, I owed my attorney well over $200,000 and received no settlement offer that would have paid me or my attorney.
I cherished the opportunity to return to my career in sports and I expected to be working in an organization that had grown professionally.
My supervisor was Richard Berthelsen, General Counsel. Mary Moran was the Personnel Manager and she served on the negotiating committee with Assistant Executive Director Doug Allen and Controller Bill Garner.
On my first day of reinstatement in April 1999, I asked for a meeting with the late Gene Upshaw. During the meeting he told me that I would not be received with open arms. I told him that I would carry out my duties in a professional manner. The following day I received correspondence that Attorney Joseph “Chip” Yablonski mischaracterized the intentions my meeting, stating: “…Ms. Thomas then proceeded to tell Mr. Upshaw what she intended to do to help the “players,” implying that Ms. Thomas viewed herself as working directly for the players, rather than NFLPA, whose day-to-day affairs Mr. Upshaw exclusively directs. Unless these matters are promptly addressed, they will lead to serious problems in the future.”
“… I trust that you will inform Ms. Thomas of certain matters that should be indisputable: ...it is not Ms. Thomas’ job or function to do what she believes or perceives to be in the best interests of the players in the National Football League. She works for the NFLPA, and is subject to the directions and instructions of Mr. Upshaw and his designees.”
“I write to you with the hope that you will counsel Ms. Thomas to remember that she is not the Executive Director of Assistant Executive Director of the NFLPA and that she is to perform the tasks requested of her by her supervisors during regular business hours.”
Retaliatory measures were subsequently carried out against me in contract negotiations in collective bargaining and working conditions. NFLPA management exhibited negative behavior towards me and staff members were given directives to ignore me or to have no associations with me.
Although I knew that it would not be a bed of roses, I certainly did not expect transparent illegal actions to be taken against me. I had a false sense of security that I had union protection. With no respect for protocol and disregard of previous sanctions, the NFLPA dared to retaliate against me once again.
Daily Access Denied
I worked on the 7th floor with restricted access that required entrance by elevator and deadbolt keys. Management purposely denied me keys and ignored my correspondence. I could only exit the elevators on the 6th floor and was required to walk up a public stairwell all day (morning, lunch time, business on other floors), every day for 19 months. After repeated requests for access, the same as my co-workers, I was informed by e-mail that I was being treated in this manner because of my union activity and outstanding Title VII attorney’s fee litigation.
As my supervisor, General Counsel, and an officer of the court, Berthelsen claimed, in a court declaration that, “it has at times been necessary to limit her movement and access to various offices.” This was because, “she also remains a legal adversary with respect to her claim for attorneys’ fees.”
As a matter of fact, it was days, months and over a year until I received keys and proper access. My union, Local 2 Office and Professional Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, was powerless to correct these actions and blamed me for getting myself fired a second time in 2003.
On Monday, March 31, 2003, I received a call at work that my mother, who had not been sick, was stricken and unresponsive. She died the following day, after NFLPA business hours. I was subsequently fired on the 1st day that I returned to work after the funeral, although, as Moran testified in the subsequent arbitration hearing, I was clearly still visibly shaken.
On top of all of this and more challenges, I faced insensitive comments from the “firing squad” of Moran and Berthelsen about how I should have dealt with my grief. I could barely read and understand the two page termination letter that was presented to me. It took all of my strength to return to work, to face the condolences of my co-workers and then to absorb the shock of being fired was overwhelming. I packed my belongings of four (4) years, with the assistance of two concerned interns. I remember very little of the journey home except for the pain.
In the midst of grieving over the loss of my mother, and concern about the welfare of my father who had suddenly and traumatically lost the love of his life, his college sweetheart, and wife of 51 years, I now had to deal with being fired.
And then in arbitration, according to managements’ ignorant calculations, I was considered A.W.O.L. on the day of the funeral. Mary Moran testified that she expected me to call work on the day of the funeral. And, it was determined, by Arbitrator John Truesdale, when Moran did not hear from me, that she had gone out of her way to ask the late Gene Upshaw to assist me. The non-fiction account of this scenario is that I called Ms. Moran for assistance and I have proof.
Unfortunately I did not receive the same compassion, as shown to other employees. Other employees were given extensions of time to grieve and get other business in order. Moran testified to the contrary in arbitration and misrepresented other employee records in comparison with my situation. Her recollection and testimony, and that of General Counsel Berthelsen, was incompetent at best; unprofessional and unethical at worst.
In a two week timeframe I experienced: a family medical emergency that resulted in the death of my mother; my child’s documented medical emergency; provided care for an elder parent; and, had medically documented issues of my own. All of these were presented upon my return to work but NFLPA management refused to accept them because they had made a final decision, the previous day, to fire me.
I refused to allow NFLPA management and its representative to further exploit my medical records and medical professional. These people (NFLPA) had no regard for any physical disability that I had, requiring me to walk up and down a stairwell to access my job, every day, for almost two years and all other examples of assault – mental, emotional, financial, personal…
I was also refused due process because I was physically unable to attend a grievance meeting during my absence. I never received notice of meeting, date, time or place from Local 2 or the NFLPA.
There was no regard for my family including my two young African American children (elementary school-aged). And to add insult to injury, after I lost my source of income and medical benefits the NFLPA preyed on my tragedy with reckless abandonment. The NFLPA used this example to hold the staff hostage and silently dared them to speak out against injustice.
It was unconscionable and insensitive to have had the sudden and unexpected death of my mother exploited. I was required to reveal, repeat and re-live the circumstances surrounding the loss, and traumatic experience thereof to union officials, grievance meetings, an arbitration hearing, D.C. and Federal government agencies.
Grief stricken over the loss of my job and medical benefits I learned that I could have continued medical benefits under COBRA for approximately $1,800 per month. And just when I thought that matters couldn’t become worse, two months later, I was denied unemployment benefits by the NFLPA.
In arbitration Mr. Berthelsen testified that he had no contact with me from the time that I learned of the family medical emergency until the wake - that I had left the premises without asking or seeking his permission. I admit that I was in shock upon receiving a telephone call at work that my mother had fallen ill – however, I went to his office, expressed my family emergency to the best of my ability and, when given information at the hospital, responded to his request. He later denied that he had even made the request because of my sudden exodus from work.
Nevertheless, at Berthelsen’s directive, I not only called the NFLPA offices but called his direct telephone line only 2 hours after I had arrived at the hospital. I went outside of the hospital, in the rain, to use my cell phone to make this call. Another call was made at the end of the day with an update that death was imminent. I called the office on the following day, April 1, 2003, after work hours to inform the NFLPA that my mother had died.
It was a deliberate, cruel and unprofessional act to have telephone calls, voice messages, medical documents, fax transmittals and other efforts at compliance negatively “interpreted” and denied. It has been a struggle to deal with the grief, financial devastation, mental and emotional anguish.
Manipulation of the System
In arbitration Berthelsen did not acknowledge or address the numerous and documented calls that I made to his direct line, Legal, Personnel and Benefits departments - too many to ignore and unanswered by himself and other senior level managers. The omission of facts is just as bad as the commission of fiction.
Moran testified in arbitration that I looked like I had an emergency when I left the premises on March 31. She viewed this from surveillance tapes. Yet, I didn’t receive a call from Mary Moran or the HR department until after my repeated calls for assistance and after the funeral. The “interpretations” of those correspondences made during the arbitration hearing are scandalous.
I was denied benefits under the FMLA, with NFLPA management and its representative passing the blame from me to Local 2 and the arbitrator’s noted lack of knowledge of the FMLA.
The arbitration hearing was a fictional exercise by NFLPA management and their representative, Attorney Joseph “Chip” Yablonski.
The deck was stacked against me with the choice, by Local 2, OPEIU and the NFLPA, of the arbitrator who was the immediate past Chairman of the NLRB.
The NFLPA has the largest back pay settlement against the NFL in the history of the NLRB and had at least a 20 year personal business relationship with its past Executive Secretary/Chairman, who oversaw all NLRB attorneys. The late Gene Upshaw had addressed the NLRB at a forum in 2002.
After I was fired the NFLPA received a complaint that I filed on my own at EEOC and I had also contacted, but did not file a claim at, the NLRB. Prior to the arbitration hearing the NFLPA demanded, in a letter given to me by Local 2 OPEIU, that I submit all documents that I had given to the EEOC and NLRB. This was done with the threat of subpoenas if I did not comply. These complaints were outside of the jurisdiction of the arbitration hearing. They were addressed to administrative governmental agencies to investigate the misconduct of the NFLPA and Local 2.
Neither the NFLPA representative, Attorney “Chip” Yablonski nor Local 2 attorney David Levinson raised issues, at the beginning, during or in post hearing briefs, about the EEOC and NLRB complaint. Nevertheless the NFLPA sent the arbitration decision to EEOC and the US District Court and claimed that those issues were fully litigated in arbitration and that Local 2 represented me. This was done to cover up their actions, deny my rights to my job and in retaliation for filing the complaints and paying Title VII attorney fees. (After all they previously denied me access to my job because of the outstanding Title VII attorney fees litigation).
Double Standard – Education
There is a double standard being applied at the NFLPA and some people are advanced at the expense of others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Languages from Hampton (University) Institute and a Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Public Administration from Texas Southern University. At the George Meany Labor Studies Center I received certificates in Shop Steward training, Collective Bargaining and Civil Rights. I negotiated contracts with NFLPA management for the bargaining unit. I also have a Paralegal certificate from American University.
Although I had previous experience at the NFLPA in the (1) Special Events and Licensing Department, (2) Research Department, (3) Legal Department and (4) Financial Advisors Program (work detail for 6 months), my ability and qualifications were questioned (in litigation and not yet resolved).
I worked in four (4) NFLPA departments for a collective sum of nine (9) years and my salary increased by $20,000 or including reinstated years, $35,000 over 20 years (with seniority).
After 9 years of experience I remained on the administrative support staff level with restricted salary increases and was never promoted into or considered for a position in management. I was also not given seniority bonuses per the CBA. The NFLPA is still challenging my seniority issue in the pending lawsuit, even after court enforcement.
Employees who had no education beyond the high school level, no college degree(s), certifications but no requirement to obtain a degree, received promotions and salaries beyond comparison.
For example, according to the Labor Department LM2 reports, Mary Moran, Human Resources Director received an increase in salary from $37,163 in FY 2000 to $187,529 in FY 2008 ($150,366 over 7 years). (Information is available in previous LM2 DOL documents)
Double Standard – Enforcement of Rules
A double standard still exists when it comes to the enforcement of rules, regulations, reprimands and sanctions by the NFLPA management and its Executive Committee. NFLPA officials will go to many lengths to taint the reputation, discourage or remove those who dare to ask for oversight. Apparently there is no fear of punishment. Perhaps these double entendres are influenced by personal, business and political connections.
The NFLPA didn’t give me permission to return to my job after being reinstated. It seems that I didn’t ask for or have permission to leave the premises to attend to a family medical emergency or funeral and I didn’t have permission to return to work after the biggest loss of my life. For that NFLPA management decided that I wasn’t worthy of my job, my career in professional sports. I would be remiss if I didn’t include the fact that the NFLPA had to pay Title VII attorney fees of approximately $400,000, via a court judgment, 14 months prior to my firing.
NFLPA management claimed that I was an essential employee who was needed at work. It’s an oxymoron, to say the least, when it took me 19 months to gain access (elevator and other keys) to my job. I was locked out every day.
The Revolving Door and Confidential Records
Turnover in office staff is a problem. The union is not a playground or a high school personality contest, designed only to work with people that are “liked.”
Too many people have been treated unfairly who have had access to players’ personal information and confidential records.
Professionalism and integrity must override personal preferences and ensure diversity and fairness in the workplace. Rules and the application thereof should not be arbitrary and/or capricious, racially and/or politically motivated. How many African American women have been fired versus Caucasian women?
Department of Health and Human Services - My rights under HIPPA were violated and need to be addressed and corrected. Medical information was requested by the Human Resources and Legal Departments with inadequate handling of private documents, invasive instructions, and unwarranted conclusions by non-medical personnel.
NLRB - There should also be full disclosure to all interested parties when a union and employer choose an arbitrator. Not just disclosure between the union and the employer but to the aggrieved/interested party, as well. Local 2, OPEIU should be investigated, among other concerns, as to why I was relegated to a stairwell for 19 months without resolve and why they have refused further correspondence with the court system regarding the pending lawsuit that the judge allowed to proceed.
EEOC - My concerns regarding discrimination and retaliation were protected activity under the law and this is why I sought and am still seeking, through proper channels, further oversight over these two unions (NFLPA and Local 2, OPEIU, AFL-CIO affiliates).
Further review of the record will reflect the determination by the NFLPA, at any cost, to circumvent the EEOC claim and deny me due process by shutting the system down.
Protection for union workers is needed under the EEOC, NLRB, DOL, and DOJ and there are supposed to be protections under the Whistleblowers Act.
The Executive Committee has now involved itself in personnel matters at the NFLPA
People are concerned with their job status because after 25 years there will be a new Executive Director and changes are anticipated. The Executive Committee has expressed concern about any re-organization because of the downturn of the economy.
The economy is bad but it is even worse, at any time, when you lose your job. I had no support from the NFLPA Executive Department or the Executive Committee, who should have been monitoring the three-decades long (‘80’s, ‘90’s and ‘00’s) personnel actions and the money that was spent. At all times General Counsel Berthelsen knew how much the NFLPA was spending and there apparently were no limits. I certainly did not have a fraction of the money but made enormous financial sacrifices since I trust the justice system. I have to overcome unknown job references from the NFLPA, and, at my age, it is essential to clear my name and work record.
Senior level NFLPA managers have been willing participants who conspired to deny me and others due process and proper treatment. They have not been prompted, directed, coaxed, or threatened to carry out their duties. I am a witness to their willingness to serve the purpose. Their depriving actions were carried out individually and in groups and they were promoted and financially rewarded.
In the past I asked my Congressional and Senatorial representatives to write letters for me to the NLRB, EEOC, and DOL after I had exhausted all available avenues. This was necessary because of tactics and legal maneuvering utilized by the NFLPA that were designed to delay, deny and exhaust me and the system. NFLPA management and their representatives still haven’t learned. It’s not their money and they have been financially rewarded for their “loyalty.”
The system has failed me and I should still be employed at the NFLPA. However, I have a blemished employment record that does not reflect my work ethic, positive contributions and compliance in the NFLPA workforce. I was four (4) months short of having twenty years of seniority, owed back pay, pension and contributions and never should have lost my job.
Litigation is still pending in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. It appears that fairness and justice are anomalies.
There is a need for governmental oversight. Or, is there already Congressional oversight and protection for [a] certain
With all due respect I seek to preserve what I think is the NFLPA’s intended legacy.
Therefore, I request an investigation, by the NFLPA Executive Committee, in the hope of the acknowledgment of the truth and the correction of the aggressive and wrongful conduct against me by NFLPA management and its representatives. I cannot allow the continued assault on my family and my integrity.
Valerie J. Thomas
Thrice locked out 1988, 1997, 2003 and continuing
Copyright 2009 DIGNITY AFTER FOOTBALL - all rights reserved