Benson’s former personal assistant must go to NFL commissioner to pursue back pay claims, Saints assert

The former longtime personal assistant to Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson must go to the commissioner of the National Football League to pursue the back pay he says he is owed, the Saints asserted Friday in a federal court filing.

The response came almost two months after Rodney Henry sued the Saints in New Orleans federal court, alleging that the team broke U.S. labor laws by not paying him overtime while he routinely put in 16-hour days while tending to the needs of Benson and his wife, Gayle.

In the filing, the Saints’ attorneys allege that a work agreement Henry signed in 2010 required him to settle “all disputes” through binding arbitration that ultimately would be decided by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“I agree that all matters in dispute between myself and the club shall be referred to the commissioner ... and his decision shall be accepted as final, conclusive and unappealable by me and the club,” read the agreement Henry signed, according to attorneys Leslie Lanusse and Gregory Rouchell, of the Adams and Reese law firm.

Lanusse and Rouchell asked U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier and U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson to compel Henry to participate in the arbitration mentioned in the agreement.

They said other employee lawsuits involving the Texans, Dolphins and Raiders were sent to arbitration by the NFL commissioner under agreements similar to the one Henry signed.

Neither Henry nor his attorney, Christopher Williams, could be reached for comment.

Friday’s filing was the Saints’ first response to Henry’s lawsuit.

The lawsuit says the Saints paid Henry an annual salary of $50,000 rather than an hourly wage, meaning he was not entitled to overtime pay under federal labor law.

But the suit says that status is usually reserved for higher-ups at corporations, and Henry argues that he should have been paid the typical 1 1/2 times his regular salary on the frequent occasions he was asked to work more than 40 hours a week.

The suit says, among other things, that Henry often worked as late as 9 p.m. picking up dinner for the Bensons, driving them places or accompanying them to Saints and Pelicans games.

Occasionally, he said, his workday would start before 5 a.m., especially during the Carnival season, when he was told to buy king cakes at Randazzo’s Bakery before they ran out.

Henry also said his work agreement with the Saints entitled him to twice his annual salary if someone other than Benson ever fired him. Henry said he was fired June 24 by Pat McKinney, the Saints’ director of human resources, without receiving the extra compensation.

Henry worked with the Saints for 25 years before his dismissal. Prior to that, he worked for a few years at a car dealership owned by Benson.

Henry’s lawsuit is one of a handful pending against Benson, 88.

The twice-widowed Benson over the last year has been dealing with litigation filed in several New Orleans and Texas courtrooms after he moved to cut his daughter and her children out of his life. He also announced that after his death, he wants to leave control of his billion-dollar business empire to Gayle, his third wife, and not to his daughter and grandchildren, as had long been planned.

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