Lawsuit against Georgia Southern Football continues
Updated: Aug 5, 2020, 10:13 PM
Following the revelation in June of a lawsuit filed against the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and the Georgia Southern football program alleging discrimination, the Herald has obtained personnel files and documents pertaining to the 2019 termination of a football team employee.
John Christopher Ball was employed as the football team’s video coordinator beginning in 2013, until he was terminated on March 11, 2019 for what was described in his personnel file as a “Violation of University Policy.”
More specifically — as described by Ball in an interview and in emails obtained from the university in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Herald — the violation was a “falsification of a time card,” with Ball reporting a total of 24 hours over three days in which it was later determined he did not work.
While Ball acknowledges a mistake in reporting hours, he contends that the true reason for his dismissal stems from his inability to carry out responsibilities that were added to his job description following a surgery that left him disabled.
Ball’s lawsuit was filed after he went through proper channels with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Georgia Southern complied with the EEOC’s request for pertinent information. Following its review, the EEOC did not determine that the university was in violation of any statutes, but also issued Ball a Right to Sue notice.
Ball has obtained the services of Kirby Smith of The Kirby Smith Law Firm of Atlanta and the case is ongoing in the Atlanta Division of the Northern District Court of Georgia.
The principal complaint in Ball’s suit stems from discussions with Head Football Coach Chad Lunsford and Director of Football Operations Sean Fitzgerald prior to the team’s spring practices in 2019, according to the suit. Ball was absent from the team from October 2018 through January 2019 while recovering from an operation that included the amputation of a foot. Upon returning to work, Ball was notified that Lunsford wanted him to be on the field during practices in order to quickly make changes to filming setups, if needed.
“That was something that I had never done before,” Ball said during an interview in June. “It had never been brought up. I thought that we were able to do whatever (Lunsford) wanted with the setup we had been using.”
Ball stated that the new demands would be very difficult to execute as he was confined to a wheelchair. Ball said Lunsford insisted that he figure out a way to get things done.
That led Ball to meet with Benefits Manager Samantha Rossi of the university’s Human Resources department on Feb. 15. In the meeting, temporary accommodations were discussed that would allow Ball to remain off the field while documentation from his physician was obtained.
Emails and meeting notes obtained in the Herald’s investigation show that both Ball and Lunsford were informed that Ball could not be forced to work on the field and that both sides should work towards finding a solution.
While Ball was out on medical leave, Lunsford said that he had video coordinators on the field and that he had decided that it was a more optimal setup than the system that had been employed by Ball and his staff. Ball contended that he believed he could fulfil all of the team’s requests while not physically being on the field himself.
Time card discrepancies
Prior to a full audit of Ball’s time card, university documents show Fitzgerald met with Ball on Feb. 21 to discuss proper procedures for alerting supervisors on days he was unable to come to work. The memo compiled by Fitzgerald on the meeting specifies Jan. 29 and 30 as instances where Ball notified the team that he would not be at work in what was determined by the university to be an untimely manner. The memo also states that future absences without proper notification could lead to further discipline up to and including termination.
Following the Feb. 21 meeting between Ball and Fitzgerald and up until his termination, there is no documented information showing formal disciplinary action towards Ball and there were no further instances of time card falsification. Notes provided by Fitzgerald kept a running record of concerns related to Ball’s job performance, but none of these instances are cited as reasons for Ball’s termination.
Ball added that the meeting consisted solely of being presented with the document and verifying the message. While the document stated that further incidents could lead to termination, Ball said that there was no discussion on the matter and that no verbal threats of termination were made.
Among the documents obtained by the Herald was a report submitted on Feb. 27, 2019, in which Georgia Southern’s Chief Auditor Jana M. Briley provided Deputy Athletic Director Lisa Sweany and Fitzgerald with the results of an internal audit into Ball.
The audit determined that Ball had not been at work on Jan. 22 or Jan. 29-30, but had reported eight hours on his time card for each of those days. The report further recommended that Ball receive training for appropriate time reporting and leave requests and that Ball’s supervisors should contact the university’s payroll department to adjust Ball’s compensatory leave hours to reflect his absence.
The possibility of termination was not mentioned in the report.
When asked by the Herald why he submitted a time card with hours he did not work, Ball said that “it was an honest mistake.”
Despite the reports recommending disciplinary action and Ball’s meeting with Director of Football Operations Fitzgerald where termination was not discussed as a possible action, Ball was fired on March 11, 2019.
University officials declined to comment on how the ultimate decision to terminate Ball was made – as well as the person or persons responsible for making the decision to terminate – citing that it is against policy to comment on pending litigation.
Also, the university declined to comment on whether similar infractions by other employees had led to termination, but did cite university policy stating, “falsification of institutional documents or records" is a serious violation that "may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.”
Ball said he believes the decision to fire him was made prior to any investigation of his time card.
“Personally, I think they had already made up their minds (about termination),” Ball said. “I didn’t hear much from Coach Lunsford all throughout spring practice. I feel like they had me do video editing through the spring and waited until right after the spring game to let me go.”
Ball’s lawsuit was filed in January in the Atlanta Division of the Northern District Court of Georgia. It demands from the Regents and Georgia Southern “full back pay plus interest, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, reasonable attorney fees, and costs in accordance with the American Disabilities Act to exceed $25,000; and any other relief this Court deems proper and just.”