Billy Hunter sues NBPA, Derek Fisher for defamation, contract breach

UPDATED 6:13 p.m. ET

Billy Hunter sued the National Basketball Players Association and president Derek Fisher on Thursday for defamation and breach of contract stemming from his dismissal as the union's executive director.

The lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court in Oakland, alleges that Fisher and his publicist, Jamie Wior, conspired to negotiate a secret deal to end the 2011 lockout and that their actions amounted to a breach of Hunter's employment contract with the NBPA.

"Once the lockout ended with an agreement in line with the owners' demands, Fisher and Wior waged a campaign to terminate his employment without cause and in violation of his contract," the lawsuit alleges, according to a press release from Hunter's attorneys, the firm Sidley Austin in San Francisco.

Hunter is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages based on his termination, at the time of which he was owed $10.5 million in salary through 2015. The former executive director is seeking, at minimum, the money he was owed on his contract at the time of his termination.

"That would be the bottom," a person with knowledge of Hunter's legal strategy told CBSSports.com.

The 36-page complaint alleges Fisher undermined Hunter's authority as the union's bargaining agent by secretly negotiating with "certain owners" and conspiring with Wior to oust him as executive director and "vest control of the union." The lawsuit cites Fisher's attempts to hire the Washington, DC, law firm Patton Boggs to conduct a business review of the union -- a move that was rejected 8-0 by the executive committee, which subsequently hired a New York firm to conduct the review.

Hunter's lawsuit alleges Fisher "actively manipulated the investigation" by the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison "by making false statements impugning Hunter's character." Hunter questions the validity of his termination "for cause" in the lawsuit because the reasons for his termination were not specified in the letter. He also uses Fisher's authority to sign his termination letter as proof Fisher also had the authority to sign Hunter to the contract in the first place. Fisher's signature also was on Hunter's 2010 employment contract, which the Paul-Weiss firm concluded in its report based on a nine-month investigation was not valid.

"It's unfortunate that I must take this action against an organization where I had the privilege of working with many dedicated associates over 17 years," Hunter said in a statement. "I'm proud of our record of achievement on behalf of players during my tenure as executive director and will continue to stand up for their interests. But I cannot let stand attacks on my character or accept what has been done."

Fisher, who signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the season and had his season end Wednesday night with a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, declined to comment at the Thunder's season-ending media session on Thursday. Wior did not return a telephone call seeking comment, nor did the NBPA.

Among the allegations in the lawsuit, Hunter asserts Fisher violated the union's constitution and by-laws and "inserted himself into the collective bargaining process to the detriment of the union." Fisher "was incentivized to complete a deal as quickly as possible given his limited playing career and need to secure his future job prospects by staying on good terms with the NBA and team owners," the lawsuit alleges.

Hunter alleges in the lawsuit that he received a late-night phone call from "one of the highest-paid NBA players and his agent" on Oct. 27, 2011 -- nearly a month before the collective bargaining agreement was reached. The player and agent informed Hunter, the lawsuit alleges, that a deal had already been cut with the owners and that Hunter should accept it and end the lockout.

"Fisher had every incentive to ingratiate himself with the NBA and team owners by aligning himself with their interests rather than the players' interests," the lawsuit says.

On Nov. 26, 2011, the players agreed to a new labor deal calling for them to receive essentially a 50-50 split of league revenues after being guaranteed 57 percent under the previous six-year agreement negotiated by Hunter. Hunter's lawsuit alleges that Fisher had brokered the 50-50 split weeks earlier "without consulting Hunter or the Executive Committee."

The lawsuit does not identify the player who called Hunter, nor does it identify the owners with whom Fisher is accused of secretly negotiating, which Hunter asserts undermined his authority as the players' sole bargaining agent under the union's constitution and by-laws.

The alleged phone call to Hunter came on the eve of a crucial bargaining session at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel -- one that many observers felt would finally end the lockout. Hunter's lawsuit details the uncomfortable circumstances in the bargaining room that day as he continued to push for no less than a 52 percent share of revenues for the players. Fisher, whom Hunter now alleges had already agreed to the 50-50 split behind his back, sat silently and oddly disengaged during the negotiatiing session, the lawsuit says.

This Oct. 28 meeting was the one that Hunter ultimately walked out of and, afterward, famously told reporters in the hotel lobby, "We've been snookered." It also resulted in a resentful, bile-spewing column by this writer.

Hunter's lawsuit also alleges that Fisher inserted his publicist, Wior, "into every aspect of his dealings with and on behalf of the NBPA," including her attendance at a players-only regional meeting in Las Vegas in September 2011 that Wior allegedly refused to leave.

"Wior had no authority whatsoever to become involved with or assist Fisher in conducting the covert CBA negotiations," the lawsuit says.

The union's board of player representatives voted 24-0 on Feb. 16 to oust Hunter as executive director after a nine-month investigation by Paul-Weiss into the union's finances and business practices during Hunter's tenure. At the time, Hunter questioned the validity of the vote because he was not given an opportunity to present his side to the players during All-Star meetings in Houston.

Hunter had been placed on administrative leave Feb. 1 by a five-player interim executive committee whose formation Hunter also said was a violation of the NBPA's constitution and by-laws.

According to his contract, Hunter could be fired for cause based on findings of embezzlement, theft, larceny, material fraud or other acts of dishonesty, or for failure to perform his duties after 30 days' written notice to take corrective action. If fired for cause, Hunter would be contractually entitled to salary and benefits through June 30, 2013.

If fired without cause, Hunter would be contractually entitled to salary and benefits for the remainder of his term, which had been scheduled to run through June 30, 2015.

The Paul-Weiss firm found that Hunter had entangled the union in conflicts of interest by hiring family members to union staff positions and had failed to properly manage those conflicts. Also, the firm found that “at times, Mr. Hunter's actions were inconsistent with the fiduciary obligations to put the interests of the Union above his own personal interests.” While the report stopped short of finding Hunter had committed any criminal acts, it recommended the players “should consider whether Mr. Hunter should remain” as executive director.

When the players voted Hunter out during the All-Star meetings, Fisher read a short prepared statement to the media and did not take questions, citing multiple ongoing criminal investigations. One of those ongoing probes by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York recently resulted in two officials from the NBPA's longtime financial firm being charged with trying to defraud the union of $3 million.

The charges against Joseph Lombardo and Carolyn Kaufman of Prim Capital stemmed from a contract between the firm and union upon which the signature of the late former general counsel of the union, Gary Hall, was forged, federal prosecutors alleged. The document calling for the firm to provide financial services to the union at a cost of $3.01 million for five years was furnished to Paul-Weiss and to the U.S. Attorney's office with Hall's signature. Hall died in May 2011.

In response to the Paul-Weiss report, Hunter fired his daughter and daughter-in-law from the union staff and terminated the union's relationship with Prim Capital, whose board included Hunter's son, Todd. In his lawsuit, Hunter states that two members of the union's executive committee told him firing family members and instituting an anti-nepotism policy would open the door to discussions of his continued employment as executive director, but those discussions never occurred.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
 
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