Former Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson sued the team on Thursday, claiming that the team fired him in retaliation for confronting owner Mark Cuban about one of Cuban’s top lieutenants sexually harassing and assaulting Nelson’s nephew. The lawsuit also said that Cuban offered Nelson a $52 million settlement if he would withdraw his complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and sign a confidentiality agreement, barring him from talking about what had happened.
Per the lawsuit, Cuban’s chief of staff, Jason Lutin, sexually harassed and sexually assaulted Nelson’s nephew during the 2020 the all-star break. He had invited the nephew to his hotel room, the lawsuit said, to discuss job possibilities.
Nelson was fired by the Mavs in June of last year. No statement was made publicly at the time as to why. Unnamed sources within the organization blamed tension between Nelson and former professional gambler turned Mavs stats guru Haralabos Voulgaris. The termination ended Nelson’s 24-year association with the Mavericks; he was an assistant coach and assistant GM under his father, coaching legend Don Nelson, until 2005 when Donnie was promoted into the GM role.
Defector asked the Mavs for comment on the lawsuit. In response, they provided the following statement:
Allegations that were brought against Jason Lutin were promptly and thoroughly investigated by outside investigators and counsel. The NBA was immediately made aware of the allegations. The claims were determined to be fabricated and the matter was resolved.
Separately, Mr. Nelson refused to cooperate with the investigators that were looking into his behavior.
Nelson’s claims of being terminated because of retaliation are completely unfounded and the lawsuit filed today is baseless and full of lies.
Mr. Nelson is fully aware, as is the NBA, of the reasons for his termination at the end of the 2020-2021 season.
The Mavs have always intended to hold private the inappropriate actions of Donnie Nelson that led to his termination.
In statements to ESPN, both Cuban and Lutin denied the allegations in the lawsuit. Cuban wrote to ESPN: “Everything in that is a lie. We did multiple complete investigations and the only person that did not live up to the standards of the Dallas Mavericks was Mr. Nelson. He was fired as a result. He was well aware of the investigation. He refused to fully participate. I will say it again, everything he said is a lie.”
Lutin told ESPN: “What this man [Nelson] is doing to someone like me is absolutely unspeakable.”
According to the lawsuit, the harassment and assault happened in February of 2020, during the NBA all-star break in Chicago. At the time, Nelson’s nephew was looking for work in the sports and entertainment field, per the lawsuit, and Lutin said he’d be happy to talk with him about it. After lunch with the Nelson family, Lutin asked the nephew to meet him in his hotel room to talk about possible jobs. It was in the hotel room, per the lawsuit, that Lutin sexually harassed and sexually assaulted the nephew.
The nephew “made a claim” against the Mavs for the harassment and assault, according to the lawsuit, and Cuban had the team “buy its way out out of the problem.”
Nelson learned about what happened roughly five months later, his lawsuit said. He called Cuban to talk about it on Aug. 16, 2020, and they spoke in person a few weeks later. After that talk, the lawsuit said that Nelson heard from Mavs CEO Cynthia Marshall, who called and told him that a third party would contact him for an interview. The Mavericks’ HR department held two other calls with him and an investigator, and he was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement.
August also was the month, according to the lawsuit, that Cuban began talking about replacing Nelson’s lifetime contract of $5 million a year with a contract for $66 million over 10 years; Nelson’s agent countered with $77 million. Soon after the Sept. 1 meeting, the lawsuit said, Cuban revoked the contract offer. The lawsuit cites a text message from Cuban to Nelson on Sept. 18 that says, “But honestly, before I can talk I have to find out more of what’s going on with the other matter. Since it’s related to some of the discussions we have had.”
On June 13, 2021, Nelson was told he was fired. According to his lawsuit, he had never been given a negative review, or been placed on probation or in a performance improvement plan.
“Any doubts that Cuban doesn’t care about ensuring workplace free of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are proven by Cuban’s actions, or more precisely, his inactions,” the lawsuit said. “Despite the Mavericks paying off the victim of Lutin’s wrongdoings, Lutin remains an employee of the Dallas Mavericks, and the Mark Cuban companies working on Shark Tank and other projects for Cuban.”
Nelson filed complaints with the EEOC and the Texas Workforce Commission. The Mavs responded by saying that Nelson’s claims were false. But, per the lawsuit, Cuban and the team offered Nelson a $52 million settlement if he would withdraw the EEOC charge and sign a confidentiality agreement. A copy of the proposed agreement was attached to this lawsuit as an exhibit. Here are what it listed as “permitted statements” Nelson could make about the Mavericks under the agreement.
Nelson’s lawyers assert in the lawsuit that they believe Cuban was hiding the EEOC complaint from members of the team’s leadership and from the NBA. They wrote in the suit that they believe Cuban was going to pay the settlement directly himself, not using team money, and noted that the EEOC correspondence was being sent to Cuban’s personal lawyer.
“Cuban’s request is out of the ordinary as the EEOC normally serves all correspondence directly to the company against whom the EEOC charge is filed,” the lawsuit said. “This is further indication that Cuban hid Nelson’s EEOC charge from Cynthia Marshal [sic] and/or the NBA.”
In a statement, Nelson said: “I filed this lawsuit on behalf of my family and all the Mavericks employees who have experienced harassment, discrimination, or retaliation in the workplace. Filing a lawsuit is not something to be taken lightly, however it was extremely important that I speak up. The facts that come out in this lawsuit will hopefully protect the incredible people I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with during my 24 years with the Mavericks.”
“I hope anyone who has been sexually harassed by a Mavericks’ employee will also speak out. I trust that people who have knowledge about the facts and issues in this lawsuit will step forward,” Nelson’s lawyer, Rogge Dunn, said in a statement. “It’s important that employees who witness problems in the workplace stand up and be heard. That protects workers everywhere. The best way to ensure a workplace free from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation is for people to speak up when they see wrongdoing. “
The lawsuit also discussed a Sports Illustrated report from 2018 that detailed years of sexual harassment and predatory behavior toward women within the Mavericks’ office. It also mentioned the time an African-American employee at the Mavs’ arena found a noose in the IT closet and included an affidavit from the employee about what happened.
A copy of the lawsuit in full is below. It includes a copy of the proposed confidentiality agreement, which starts on page 36.