Trump's Panthers-Owning Cabinet Pick Won't Pay His Mascot, Lawsuit Says

Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola could soon run an entire wing of the U.S. government. President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Viola, a military veteran and low-profile New York billionaire, to serve as secretary of the Army. That job requires caring for the well-being of thousands of Americans who volunteer to do the hardest jobs, and serious empathy for those who develop mental illness in the service.

So it's a bit concerning that Viola's hockey team is being sued for allegedly refusing to pay its mascot, Stanley C. Panther, for more than 1,400 hours in unpaid overtime wages. The team is also accused of firing that same mascot for missed days due to severe depression.

In a lawsuit filed last week, Raphael U. Estevez, who worked full-time as the team's mascot from January 2012 to April 2016, says the team made him spend the equivalent of 175 eight-hour workdays appearing at team events, children's birthday parties, and parades, all for zero dollars. He was paid a salary for the 40 hours each week he worked — but he says he often worked an average of 350 overtime hours a year for nothing. The lawsuit alleges the team wrongly said Estevez was exempt from overtime.

"The Panthers failed to compensate Estevez for his appearances at these private events," the suit says. "Esteves was not paid overtime or minimum wage for numerous hours worked engaging in private appearances."

Meanwhile, the Panthers often collected cash from many of the events Stanley C. Panther attended: Those birthday appearances cost money, and Esteves he didn't see a dime of those fees.

"Estevez was well-respected by his peers, and was considered a good team member that brought enthusiasm and energy to his work," the suit says.

In the meantime, Estevez says, he was struggling with mental illness. On March 10, 2016, the suit says, he was hospitalized for "severe depression." Estevez says his family called the Panthers to let them know he'd be out for a few days on medical leave. He missed only one Panthers game and returned to work March 16. They suit says the team told him that he wouldn't lose his job for the week he spent in the hospital.

"However, upon returning to work, Estevez was treated differently from employees who were not disabled or handicapped or perceived or regarded as being disabled or handicapped," the suit says. Estevez says the team accused him of a host of "false acts" so they could fire him: He says the team accused him of taking money from fans under-the-table and for allegedly taking a postgame photo that wasn't approved by team management. The team fired him this past April 11.

"The team of managers told Estevez that because of the photograph and his 'attitude,' it would be best if 'we went our separate ways,'" the suit alleges.

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Estevez's lawyer, Erika Deutsch Rothbart, tells New Times the team made up the questions about Estevez's "demeanor" to fire him. He's now suing the team for unpaid overtime, unpaid minimum wage, and disability and handicap discrimination.

Viola bought the Panthers in 2013 for $160 million, a remarkable bargain for a pro sports team.

A Panthers spokesperson didn't immediately return New Times' call to comment on the lawsuit. The team has yet to respond in court to the complaint.

Here's the complaint:


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