Former Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson sued the team last Thursday for retaliation and wrongful termination. Nelson asserts the Mavericks fired him after he complained that Mark Cuban’s chief of staff, Jason Lutin, had sexually assaulted his adult-age nephew. The 25-page complaint, filed in a Dallas County court, contends the Mavericks’ lax approach to curtailing workplace misconduct continued after a scathing report in 2018 found a pattern of sexual harassment.
The Mavericks, and owner Mark Cuban, have bluntly rejected Nelson’s allegations, describing them as frivolous and untrue. On Friday, attorneys for the team answered Nelson’s complaint. The answer, signed by attorney Thomas Melsheimer of Winston & Strawn, belittled the lawsuit as “the final desperate effort of Nelson’s lengthy scheme to extort as much as $100 million from the Dallas Mavericks.” The Mavericks also dispute Nelson’s claim that he was employed through a “lifetime contract,” saying instead he had no contract and was merely an employee at-will.
Nelson’s complaint, authored by attorney Rogge Dunn, says Lutin lured his nephew into Lutin’s hotel room while Mavericks staff attended NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago in February 2020. As depicted by Nelson, Lutin assured the nephew that they would discuss job possibilities, but instead committed sexual assault and harassment. The nephew is described as a “young [and] vulnerable member of the LGBTQ community.” In comments to ESPN, Lutin categorically denied the allegations.
The complaint further states that the nephew, without informing his uncle, reached a settlement with the Mavericks. Nelson, 59, learned about the alleged incident five months later, around the time he was negotiating an employment contract with Cuban. Nelson opined to Cuban that Lutin presented a safety risk and that his continued presence would betray Cuban’s pledge of a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy.
Nelson insists the Mavericks retaliated by demanding he sign a confidentiality agreement and withdrawing a 10-year, $66 million contract offer (the team says Nelson rejected an offer). The Mavericks fired Nelson in June 2021. Nelson portrays the firing as without merit and notes he hadn’t been placed on workplace probation or in a performance improvement plan regarding job performance.
Last December, Nelson filed a charge of discrimination for retaliation with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Texas Commission on Human Rights. The charge asserts that Cuban “punished” Nelson for reporting the alleged assault. Nelson also insists that Cuban referred to Nelson’s supposed “lifetime contract” when firing him. Cuban, as Nelson tells it, offered him $52 million to drop the EEOC charge and accept confidentiality.
Several pages of Nelson’s complaint denigrate Cuban’s basketball acumen and depict the billionaire entrepreneur as meddling. Nelson, the complaint insists, was “adamant” about drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 13th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft since he was certain that Antetokounmpo “would blossom into an all-star.” Antetokounmpo was an intriguing, if raw, talent who played for Filathlitikos B.C. in Greece. Nelson, the son of former Mavericks coach Don Nelson, says Cuban overruled him and urged Nelson to trade down to create more cap room. The Mavericks eventually traded the 13th pick to the Boston Celtics in exchange for the 16th pick and a couple of second round picks. The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick.
Nelson says he was traumatized by the Mavericks and Cuban in particular. His complaint asserts he “has suffered and will suffer past, present, and future severe mental anguish” and “has needed and obtained counseling and prescription medicine.”
While Nelson says he had a lifetime contract, the Mavericks say there was no contract for any term. Under what is known as the statute of frauds, an oral contract must be performed within one year (among other requirements) for it to be deemed enforceable. It would be unusual for a president of basketball operations to work without a written employment contract, particularly given the sensitive information and trade secrets the executive would encounter. However, the structure of the employment relationship is ultimately up to the team and the executive.
Nelson, the Mavericks’ answer charges, “was rightfully concerned” about public calls demanding his ouster around 2020. From the 2016-17 through 2019-20 seasons, the Mavericks placed no higher than seventh in the Western Conference and as low as 14th. As an at-will employee, the team’s answer clarifies, Nelson lacked a “guarantee of any severance or payout” in the event of a firing. Allegedly worried about his “long-term financial security,” Nelson is accused of engineering a “plot” to try to “extort” the Mavericks.
Judge Paula Rosales will preside over the case. Should the litigation advance, Nelson’s attorneys would seek sworn testimony from Cuban and other Mavericks officials. They would also demand emails, texts and additional electronic evidence relevant to his claims. The Mavericks, in turn, would question Nelson. The NBA, which is currently investigating the Phoenix Suns for alleged workplace misconduct, could seek more information at any time. League spokesman Mike Bass said on Thursday the NBA is aware of the allegations and the Mavericks’ accompanying investigation.