A judge ruled that a former Los Angeles Sparks general manager who contends she was fired for raising complaints of alleged misconduct by the then-team president and a managing partner must have her case heard by an arbitrator rather than a jury.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michelle Williams Court issued her final ruling Thursday in Penny Toler’s lawsuit after hearing arguments Aug. 20 on a defense motion to force arbitration of the case. She had the case under submission in the interim.
Toler sued the WNBA team and former team president Christine Simmons on March 20, five months after being fired after a profanity-laced postgame tirade that included the use of a racial slur. In urging arbitration, defense attorneys cited a clause in Toler’s employment contract.
Toler’s lawyers maintained in their court papers that there was no agreement to arbitrate the plaintiff’s wrongful termination or employment and wage claims against the Sparks, but the judge disagreed.
“Plaintiff agreed to arbitration agreements in her past employment contracts with the Sparks and the arbitration portion of the employment agreement is conspicuous due to the bold, capital print,” the judge wrote.
The judge added she did not find the arbitration portion of the employment agreement to be “procedurally unconscionable,” meaning there was no unequal bargaining power or lack of meaningful choice for Toler.
The judge put the lawsuit on hold and scheduled a post-arbitration status conference for May 18.
Toler, 54, maintains she suffered retaliation after complaining about an alleged extramarital affair between Simmons and team managing partner and governor Eric Holoman, saying the relationship made her job harder. When Toler complained to Simmons that her conduct was a distraction to the team and exposed the Sparks to liability, the team responded by firing the plaintiff, the suit alleges.
Toler also alleges she was treated more harshly than male Sparks employees who engaged in far more egregious conduct and were never investigated, fired or otherwise disciplined.
The team maintains that Toler, who is Black, was fired for using the “N-word” after going inside the Sparks’ locker room after a loss to the Connecticut Sun last Sept. 19.
“Penny Toler’s complaint is replete with falsehoods and meritless claims and is merely an effort to smear the good reputations of people with whom she is angry,” team attorneys state in their court papers. “The Los Angeles Sparks appropriately ended Toler’s contract with the team. Toler engaged in a completely outrageous and inappropriate tirade in which the `N- word’ was only one of many extremely offensive profanities she used.”
The team lawyers further state in their court papers that Toler’s conduct “was not acceptable and is against the Sparks’ values and culture.”
Toler’s claims against Simmons are “similarly groundless and were introduced to retaliate against the Sparks and to harm Simmons’ reputation,” according to the Sparks’ lawyers court papers.
Toler did not deny using the “N-word,” but said it was not directed at any players.
Simmons left the Sparks in late 2018 to become the first-ever chief operating officer of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.