Former NFL Player sues the New York Jets Over Disability Discrimination

Nov 10, 2017

By Michael S. Carroll, PhD & Andrew L. Goldsmith, PhD
Erin Henderson, who started at the middle linebacker position for the New York Jets this past season, is no longer with the team and is now suing his former employer, alleging wrongful termination and disability discrimination. Henderson signed a two-year, $3.1 million contract with the Jets in 2016 and is seeking $3.3 million in damages relating to his unpaid 2016 salary and non-guaranteed 2017 salary, as well as punitive damages. The Jets had previously removed Henderson from the starting lineup and placed him on the reserve non-football injury/wellness (NFI) list after only five games in the 2016 season without providing a reason, only stating that he was not “fit to play” at the time, fueling rumors that Henderson had relapsed with respect to his struggles with alcohol. Henderson previously had two DUI arrests while playing for the Minnesota Vikings and was released from the team in 2014. The Jets placed Henderson on the NFI list 10 days after he overslept and was late for a team meeting. Henderson explained that he was late due to the side effects from the medication, Seroquel, the team had prescribed him for a bipolar disorder, which caused him to oversleep. The team subsequently removed him from the active roster and cut off his medication. Subsequently, Henderson filed a grievance with the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) this year over the Jets’ handling of his departure from the team and commenced suing the New York Jets in September 2017.
Henderson stipulates that he was employed by the New York Jets as a linebacker from April 2015 through March 2017, and that during this time he suffered from a bipolar disorder. A physician hired by the New York Jets treated his bipolar disorder and also prescribed him his medication. Henderson further claims that he discussed his disability with representatives of the New York Jets including, the head coach, team doctors, and other upper management personnel. Henderson was to be paid $2.25 million for the 2017 season as well as a variety of bonuses bringing his total potential compensation to $2.5 million. By placing him on the NFI list, the Jets avoided paying Henderson the promised salary and bonuses for the 2017 season and that his placement on the list occurred only a few days before the team was obligated to pay Henderson a $250,000 roster bonus. The complaint also notes that during the last two games of the 2016 season before being placed on the NFI list, Henderson led the team in tackles. Henderson alleges six counts in his complaint:
Count I: New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to 42 -Adverse Employment Action/Wrongful Termination
Henderson argues that the state of New Jersey, through the NJLAD, prohibits discrimination based on one’s disability and that the Jets wrongfully terminated him based upon his disability. He claims that he would not have been fired but for his disability, and that as a direct and proximate result of their discriminatory actions, Henderson has suffered economic and emotional damages. The relevant portion of the Act reads:
Unless it can be clearly shown that a person’s disability would prevent such person from performing a particular job, it is an unlawful employment practice to deny to an otherwise qualified person with a disability the opportunity to obtain or maintain employment, or to advance in position in his job, solely because such person is a person with a disability.
Count II: (New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to 42 -Adverse Employment Action/Wrongful Termination/Pretextual Reasons
Henderson alleges he was placed on the NFI list without forewarning or explanation, and that by contending that it was a non-football injury, the Jets avoided their obligation to pay him his salary and roster bonus. In doing so, the Jets violated the NJLAD, as he was placed on the list specifically due to his disability. He claims that the Jets placed him on the NFI list for undisclosed reasons, which was a pretext for violating the NJLAD.
Count III: New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to 42-Hostile Work Environment
Henderson claims that the discrimination he experienced based upon his disability was so severe and/or pervasive that a reasonable person would have deemed it to be hostile, abusive, intimidating, or offensive. He claims that the Jets failed to take appropriate measures to put an end to the hostile work environment and thus the discrimination continued. In addition, the Jets failed to combat the creation of a hostile environment by failing to enact reasonable policies and procedures and/or to maintain effective sensing or monitoring mechanisms with respect to its policies and complaint structures. Thus, their actions constituted unlawful employment actions in violation of NJLAD.
Count IV: False Light and Damage to Reputation and Career
Prior to signing with the Jets, Henderson was treated for alcohol abuse and rehabilitation, a condition well known to the Jets when they hired him. Henderson’s issue with alcohol abuse was also a well-known fact within the NFL. Henderson alleges that by placing him on the NFI list without providing a specific reason, the Jets created the appearance that his placement on the list was alcohol-related and that he suffered damage to his reputation as a result. He further alleges that the damage to his reputation resulted in other teams in the NFL refusing to hire him, thus ruining his career.
Count V: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Henderson alleges that the actions taken by the Jets caused him severe mental distress and that their conduct was willful, wonton, and egregious.
Count VI: Punitive Damages
Henderson alleges that the willful, wonton, and egregious nature and behavior of the Jets makes the team liable for punitive damages.
Henderson is seeking a judgment entered against the Jets for compensatory and punitive damages as well as reasonable attorney’s fees and expenses.
Michael S. Carroll is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. He has published over 30 articles and delivered over 50 presentations at professional conferences. He is currently serving as President of the Sport and Recreation Law Association. He lives in Orlando, FL.
Andrew L. Goldsmith is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to organizational behavior and ethical decision-making in sport and recreation.


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