DETROIT – Longtime Zamboni driver Al Sobotka is suing the Detroit Red Wings, claiming he was wrongly fired because a medical condition forced him to urinate in an ice pit while working.
Sobotka, 68, was fired by the Red Wings on Feb. 17. He was a fan favorite for decades and best known for twirling an octopus to help ignite crowds during playoff games at Joe Louis Arena.
The lawsuit says Sobotka started working for the team at age 17.
“He performed services for the Detroit Red Wings including, but not limited to, handling day-to-day operations connected to the ice and the arena, including maintaining the practice ice, driving and maintaining the Zamboni, and taking care of the locker rooms,” the lawsuit reads.
Sobotka had an “excellent” performance record through his 51 years of employment, according to the lawsuit. It refers to him as a “staple of the Detroit hockey community.”
The lawsuit says Sobotka never missed a single game or took vacation during the hockey season. It claims he used one sick day in 51 years.
The lawsuit says that in late January, Sobotka was on a Zoom call with Tim Padgett, the vice president of venue operations. Padgett told Sobotka he was “getting old,” according to the lawsuit.
Alleged reason for firing
Sobotka said he is diagnosed with benign prostatic hypertrophy, a condition that causes “a frequent and uncontrollable need to urinate.”
Sobotka had just finished cleaning and maintaining the ice in the main rink Feb. 2 when he moved the Zamboni into the garage, according to the lawsuit.
There’s a pit in the garage where the ice is unloaded and drained before it runs into the sewer, the lawsuit states. It’s not open to the public, and access is limited to the ice crew, all of whom are men, according to the lawsuit.
“(Sobotka) suddenly experienced an uncontrollable urge to urinate due to his BPH condition,” the lawsuit reads. “To access a restroom, (Sobotka) would have had to exit the garage and walk 60-70 feet to a public restroom. Instead, standing behind two Zambonis and seeing no one around, he urinated into the pit, which contained water to be drained.”
The lawsuit says another employee who works under Sobotka saw what happened and reported it to management.
Suspension amid investigation
Sobotka’s lawsuit says he was called into a meeting around 4 p.m. Feb. 4 by his supervisor, Jim Bullo. A human resources partner was on speakerphone, according to the lawsuit.
The human resources partner asked Sobotka if he had urinated into the pit, and he confirmed that he did, the lawsuit says. She told him that he was being placed under investigation and would be suspended for a week, according to the lawsuit.
Sobotka spoke to her a week later, on the date he was supposed to be contacted about returning, and was told that he couldn’t return yet, the lawsuit alleges. She told him that the investigation was still underway, it says.
Sobotka told the human resources partner about his condition, and she said she would make sure that was reflected in the investigative report, according to the lawsuit.
“On Feb. 17, 2022, (Sobotka) received a call from Michele Bartos, vice president of human resources, and Tim Badgett,” the lawsuit reads. “They told (Sobotka) he was being terminated for ‘bad judgement.’”
The lawsuit claims Sobotka was never interviewed as part of the investigation. It says he never saw any investigative report or results, but was given a “confidential” agreement to sign, which included a small payment and a non-disparagement provision.
Sobotka declined the offer, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit claims Sobotka was discriminated against based on his age.
“(Sobotka)’s age was at least one determining factor in (the) decision to treat (him) differently, with respect to the conditions of his employment and termination,” the lawsuit reads.
It claims Sobotka’s termination was not due to a lack of seniority, merit, or quality of work.
The lawsuit also alleges “discrimination in violation of the Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act,” as well as violations of the same act, as the second and third counts, respectively.
Those allegations stem from Sobotka having a record of his condition, which “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” according to the lawsuit.
“(Sobotka) was at all times qualified to perform the essential functions of his job,” the lawsuit reads. “(Sobotka) was terminated, at least in part, for his disability.”
The lawsuit cites financial losses, humiliation, embarrassment, emotional and physical distress, mental anguish, and other factors as consequences of the alleged wrongful firing.
Sobotka’s lawsuit is requesting relief in the form of compensatory damages, exemplary damages, and court fees.
He also wants his old job back, and protection from further discrimination, according to the lawsuit. It also calls for “declaratory relief” that Sobotka was discriminated against.
The lawsuit also requests an order that all managers and supervisors be trained about age discrimination at the workplace.
You can view the full lawsuit below.