Former Independent Sports & Entertainment Executive Sues for Gender and Racial Discrimination

Jun 9, 2017

By Tyler White
Joyce Li, Director of Operations for the Basketball Division at Independent Sports & Entertainment (ISE), has filed suit against her former employer (and predecessor Relativity Sports) for gender discrimination, racial discrimination and wrongful termination in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Ms. Li alleges that while employed by these professional sports agencies she was subjected to a workplace that was blatantly discriminatory, including inequity of pay compared to her male counterparts and lack of racial diversity.
Ms. Li also alleges retaliation and wrongful termination as a result of exercising her right to protest discrimination in the workplace. She claims she has sustained ongoing economic loss, mental anguish and emotional distress and is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
In addition, Ms. Li alleges ISE and Relativity Sports consistently practiced “shameful acts of discrimination and gender inequality” in violation of the California Equal Pay Act and the California Fair Pay Act (SB 358). She further alleges, “Defendants discriminated, retaliated against, and terminated Plaintiff (Li) in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, Labor Code § 1197.5, and in violation of public policy.”
By way of background, “Ms. Li joined Relativity Sports, a professional sports agency, in March 2013 and reported to Dan Fegan, prominent sports agent and President of the Basketball Division.” Mr. Fegan’s NBA clients include such prominent players as Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons and Ricky Rubio. Ms. Li alleges that prior to her employment with Relativity Sports, she “acquired extensive experience, working in the sports industry for 10 years, predominantly managing high profile NBA athletes.” She asserts that while working directly for Mr. Fegan she “received consistent pay raises and bonuses that adequately compensated her hard work and successful results.” However, once employed by Relativity Sports and ISE, it is contended she “no longer received pay raises, fee splits, and/ or bonuses, unlike her male counterparts, despite now being responsible for a division that had double the number of clients, agents, and responsibilities.”
Ms. Li alleges that despite being a full-time executive and holding the title of Director of Operations at Relativity Sports, which later became ISE, “she received an unsatisfactory base salary of less than six figures.” Her responsibilities as Director of Operations included “handling all travel arrangements for agents and their respective clients, co-working with agents and clients on marketing deals, as well as the myriad of issues that often arise within the division.” Ms. Li contends that under the proper guidance of Mr. Fegan, “the Basketball Division set a record that summer for having negotiated more than $400 million in NBA player negotiated contracts which was the largest total dollar amount for a basketball agency to date.”
Ms. Li alleges that around 2013, she began servicing Dwight Howard’s account. She asserts that based upon her extensive experience working alongside NBA clients, and her aptitude to go “above and beyond the call of duty for Mr. Howard and his family,” she was invaluable in securing Howard’s loyalty to ISE. Specifically, Ms. Li alleges that “Mr. Howard stayed with ISE through two lucrative contracts totaling $104 million over 9 years; a 4 year $80 million contract with the Houston Rockets, and a 5 year $24 million shoe deal starting in August 2015.” It is alleged that “ISE received 3% commission on Howard’s $80 million contract, and a 15% commission on the shoe deal.” However, she contends her former employer “refused to grant her any fee splits or commission, in which ISE profited millions of dollars, despite her role in securing Dwight Howard as a loyal client.”
Ms. Li contends that despite her incredible success and integral role in securing high profile NBA athletes, including Howard, ISE neither offered nor permitted her “to participate in fee splits or bonuses on these deals unlike her male counterparts.” She claims that notwithstanding the significant revenue generated by the Basketball Division of ISE from its NBA clients, her former employer “blatantly ignored” her significant role in generating these profits. It is alleged that although her job responsibilities were the same or similar to that of her male counterparts, Ms. Li was not compensated with “fees, commissions, large salaries, and aggressive pay raises.”
Ms. Li claims these discriminatory compensation practices, based on her gender, were financially injurious and are ongoing. Additionally, she contends she was not compensated fully despite working two full-time positions (Director of Operations and senior agent). Ms. Li claims her rigorous workload was more demanding than that of her higher paid male co-workers. By way of example, it is asserted that “Li traveled more (including extensive international travel), to service clients in an agent capacity than most other male agents in the division. Li was instrumental in the recruiting of NBA clients, client development, and client relations. Li performed these ‘agent’ duties, but with unequal pay.”
In June 2015, Relativity Media, the parent of company of Relativity Sports, declared bankruptcy. Although this resulted in closure of Relativity Sports offices for one year, Ms. Li asserts she “continued to work diligently and without disruption. She sacrificed her personal life by working long hours and traveling for the benefit of the company and its clients.” It is alleged Relativity Sports failed to reward her hard work and instead gave a major pay raise and significant fee split to a male co-worker who had “only tangentially been involved in Dwight Howard’s deals.” Ms. Li further contends that “another male consultant without a contract was paid a flat rate commission up-front.”.
Ms. Li alleges that Hank Ratner, the CEO of ISE, planned to terminate her employment because she had “significant legal claims related to being treated and paid unfairly… and Mr. Ratner was concerned that Li would initiate legal action. In order to avoid appearing retaliatory, Mr. Ratner wanted Li terminated immediately under the false pretext that she was no longer needed because she did not have any direct clients to service.”
It is alleged that Mr. Fegan, and ISE Vice President of the Basketball Division Jarinn Akana, “directly objected to Mr. Ratner regarding Ms. Li’s termination.” She asserts that Mr. Fegan and Mr. Akana approached Mr. Ratner and adamantly decried the unfair, discriminatory treatment of a valuable, executive level employee. In fact, Mr. Fegan allegedly offered to pay out-of-pocket to adequately compensate Li for her outstanding work, which was supposedly unrecognized by the defendants. Instead of paying her with Mr. Fegan’s bonus, Ms. Li alleges “he distributed the money to other men, and cut another female employee’s salary in the process. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Fegan was also terminated, and Mr. Akana resigned.”
Prior to her eventual termination in December 2016, Li asserts the discriminatory work environment included her exclusion from division retreats, a double-standard on proper dress code, and complaints to high level executives which were largely ignored. Ms. Li further alleges she was a victim of racial discrimination at ISE. It is asserted that, “In comparison to white male employees, even in lower positions than Li, their starting salaries were either higher than Li’s and/ or they received pay raises at such an accelerated pace that these men are now earning much more than Li despite the fact that she performed dual roles as Director of Operations and essentially the role of a senior agent.”
In addition to compensatory and punitive damages, Ms. Li is seeking “an injunction against unequal pay to women and minorities, and other discriminatory and retaliatory practices in the future.” She is requesting “the creation of a court supervised policy against discriminatory treatment of women and people of color in terms of wages and salary, and a policy against retaliation against employees who complain of discrimination on the basis of their gender and/or race and for equal pay.” Ms. Li further seeks the “imposition of periodic reporting requirements on the company.”
A Case Management Conference is scheduled for July 24, 2017 in this matter.


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