The owner of the Kansas City Power & Light District is fighting back against a lawsuit that alleged a pattern of discrimination in the entertainment area with one of its own.
Countersuits are common. What’s unusual in this case is that Cordish Cos. and two related entities filed a defamation suit this week against the attorneys who filed the earlier lawsuit on behalf of a former district employee.
Cordish is seeking unspecified damages against the two lawyers representing Glen Cusimano for knowingly or with reckless disregard making false statements to the news media that damaged the district’s reputation.
The most damaging of those, Cordish officials say, are allegations that Cordish employed white people as “rabbits” to provoke altercations with black people as an excuse to eject minorities from district clubs in 2012 and 2013.
Cordish denies it did any such thing.
But on Thursday, Cusimano’s lead attorney, Linda Dickens, reaffirmed the allegations of discrimination, produced one of those “rabbits” for members of the news media to interview and called Cordish’s countersuit “a bullying tactic” meant to distract attention from her client’s claims.
“If they had real evidence to defend the lawsuit with,” she said, “they wouldn’t be wasting their time with this.”
She predicted Cordish’s suit would be thrown out as frivolous.
Jean Maneke, a Kansas City lawyer who specializes in free speech law, said she could not think of another example where a lawyer has been sued for repeating allegations made in a lawsuit.
“There is case law that says the material contained in pleadings contained in a case file is absolutely privileged,” she said.
In its lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., Baltimore-based Cordish accuses Cusimano, Dickens and another attorney in her firm, Austin Johnston, of concocting the rabbit story as a way “to extort money” from the company.
Cusimano filed suit in Jackson County Circuit Court after he was fired in September from his $78,000-a-year job as the general manager of Mosaic, a nightclub in the district. He said he was wrongfully discharged and his reputation was damaged.
Cordish alleges that it had no choice but to fire Cusimano after he hit a man in handcuffs on Aug. 24.
Cusimano said the man attacked him earlier in the night when he tried to settle a dispute. Police were called. A police report said Cusimano smacked the man in the head after he’d been subdued.
Cusimano doesn’t deny striking the man but said he was defending himself as the man tried to headbutt him.
In his lawsuit, Cusimano alleges that he was the victim of the very tactic that he, an African American, had been ordered to use to reduce the number of black people in the entertainment district.
The man in handcuffs, he said, was probably a “rabbit” who’d picked a fight on the orders of district officials who wanted to get rid of him after he’d raised concerns about discriminatory practices.
In a letter to Cordish dated Dec. 10, 2013, and attached to the Cordish lawsuit, Dickens alleged that Mosaic used rabbits throughout Cusimano’s time there, starting in the summer of 2011.
“In the summer of 2013 alone,” Dickens wrote, “Glen used a rabbit, or saw one being used, approximately 20 to 30 times.”
Cusimano said he was instructed by his supervisor to employ rabbits as a way to “lighten up” the district by ejecting “thugs.” Cusimano said he had qualms about the practice, but needed the job. His rabbit of choice, he said, was an old acquaintance named Tom Alexitch.
In a signed affidavit, Alexitch said that in exchange for starting fights that led to ejections, he was given free drinks and cash, ranging from $50 to $150 a night.
At a Kansas City coffee shop Thursday afternoon, Alexitch told The Star that one way he started trouble was to walk up to groups of black men and insult or flirt with their dates.
“Mostly comments toward their girlfriends, hitting on their girlfriend. Just be belligerent,” he said. “It would start to erupt into stuff and I’d say, ‘You want to go at it,’ just make a lot of noise before you get your ass kicked and then the bouncers would fly in, break it all up and kick us all out.”
While the African Americans would be kicked out for the night, Alexitch said he was allowed to return and start more trouble, if instructed to.
Cordish said none of those allegations is true, that no rabbits were employed and that the Dec. 10 letter was an attempt to extract a settlement payment. At a Dec. 30 meeting with Dickens and Johnston, the Cordish suit said, an attorney for Cordish challenged the allegations by saying there would have been records on file of the ejections, but no such records existed.
Dickens and Johnston did not back down.
“...despite knowing that Cusimano’s and Alexitch’s allegations were false,” Cordish says, Dickens and Johnston said they would “have to go public” unless a settlement payment was made.
Cusimano is seeking $10 million in actual and punitive damages. Separately, Dickens filed a class-action lawsuit in March on behalf of two African-American men who claim they were discriminated against in the district.
Cordish came under fire several years ago over allegations that a district dress code was being unfairly applied to African Americans. The Kansas City Human Relations Department filed a discrimination complaint in 2009 that was settled the next year after the dress code was modified.
In March, Human Relations Director Phillip Yelder said no discrimination complaints had been filed against the district with his department in several years.