Aussie basketball legend Shane Heal loses legal showdown with Sydney Flames

Steve ZemekNCA NewsWire
Shane Heal has lost his lawsuit against the Sydney Flames. NCA NewsWire/Gaye Gerard.
Camera IconShane Heal has lost his lawsuit against the Sydney Flames. NCA NewsWire/Gaye Gerard. Credit: News Corp Australia

Australian basketball legend Shane Heal has lost a lion’s share of his lawsuit against the Sydney Flames, with a judge finding he was suspended as the WNBL club’s head coach because of complaints made by players.

Heal sued the WNBL club in the Federal Court, seeking orders preventing his termination as well as penalties including employee entitlements.

He launched the lawsuit, alleging breaches of employment law, after he was suspended from his role as the club’s head coach in January last year.

The club said it launched an investigation into Mr Heal’s conduct after players approached management raising bullying complaints and issues with his behaviour.

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The Flames suspended Mr Heal and commissioned an independent investigation into the allegations before the matter spilt into the Federal Court last year.

Heal had claimed that he was suspended after he exercised his workplace rights and the complaints were used as a “smokescreen”, the court was told.

In handing down his judgment on Friday afternoon, Justice John Halley said he was satisfied the action taken against Heal was because of the complaints brought to senior management by the players.

“Contrary to the case advanced by Mr Heal, I accept the decision to suspend Mr Heal as head coach of the team was taken because of the complaints that the players had made to senior management of the Sydney Flames about him, not because of his exercise of any alleged workplace rights,” Justice Halley said.

Camera IconShane Heal has lost his lawsuit against the Sydney Flames. NCA NewsWire/Gaye Gerard. Credit: News Corp Australia

In January last year, following a loss to Perth, the playing group — minus Heal’s daughter Shyla Heal — had dinner together during which three players expressed they were “struggling with or upset by Mr Heal’s conduct towards them”, the court heard.

Captain Keely Froling agreed to call president Victoria Denholm and raise the complaints on the players’ behalf, the court heard.

Ms Froling expressed a number of complaints to Ms Denholm about Heal, including one of her teammates having a panic attack and another suffering mental health issues.

Flames chief executive Christopher Pongrass met with Ms Froling “in which she gave examples of a number of instances where Mr Heal had acted towards players in a bullying or belittling manner”, Justice Halley said.

A day later, Mr Pongrass received a call from a player agent, who managed two Flames players, raising the complaints.

Mr Heal was called into a meeting where he was told about the allegations and that an independent investigation would be carried out.

He was stood down with pay while the investigation occurred.

The club received the report, prepared by a lawyer, in early February last year, and he was asked to show cause why his employment shouldn’t be terminated, prompting him to launch the court proceedings.

Heal denied any wrongdoing in a statement made last year.

Heal claimed he was suspended for exercising certain workplace rights, including raising claims about the team’s schedule and disagreements over player signings, including their failure to make an offer to American star Jackie Young.

However, Justice Halley said the club was constrained from signing Ms Young due to salary cap constraints and Mr Heal would not have been “genuinely surprised or upset”.

Justice Halley said that the decision by club management to suspend Heal was “because of the complaints made by members of the team about the behaviour and conduct of Mr Heal”.

He said he did not accept that the “players’ complaints were a ‘smoke screen’ advanced by Sydney Flames” to disguise the real reason for his suspension.

He described the complaints as “objectively serious”.

“They were principally advanced by the captain of the team in a one hour meeting to senior management on behalf of the team, they concerned four players, and they included claims that players were struggling, a player had had a panic attack and another player was struggling with mental health issues,” Justice Halley said.

Heal also took action under the Fair Work Act, claiming that the club had failed to provide him with employment records, did not provide him with pay slips and had breached his contract by not paying commissions on sponsorship revenue for financial backers that he brought to the Flames.

The Flames admitted to failing to provide him with pay slips

Justice Halley ruled that the club had breached his contract by not paying him his share of sponsorship revenue, saying that Heal was entitled to a commission for bringing two sponsors to the club.

He otherwise ruled in favour of the Sydney Flames and dismissed Mr Heal’s lawsuit.

Originally published as Aussie basketball legend Shane Heal loses legal showdown with Sydney Flames

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