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Former Seattle Seawolves head coach Tony Healy has sued the team’s ownership group, Seattle Rugby, LLC, and owner Adrian Balfour for breach of contract, failure to pay wages, and willful withholding of wages. The suit, filed in King County Superior Court on June 28, is seeking $43,000 in pay, damages and legal fees.
Healy, a Canadian national, was announced as the Seawolves head coach in October, but his work visa was never granted, and he was unable to coach the team in its inaugural season, which culminated with Seattle winning the league championship. His suit claims he’s still owed the full measure of his six-month contract.
Beginning in January, Healy traveled back-and-forth to Seattle on several occasions without a work visa. He'd often stay a week or more at a time to assemble the team and coaching staff and fulfill media obligations. The suit claims Healy, who left his previous job to begin with the Seawolves on the assurance that they’d handle his visa, was also heavily involved in fundraising.
The Seawolves sponsored the visa application and hired Jon Velie, an Oklahoma immigration lawyer with experience attaining visas for rugby players, to handle the process. Twice Healy’s application was denied.
“We fully intended to hire Tony as our head coach,” said Balfour. “There’s no doubt about that, but the condition of his hire is that he had to be able to work. If you can’t work, you can’t work."
One of the central disputes in the suit seems to be whether or not Healy was ever actually hired. He claims he was in the suit, but Balfour disagrees.
“Tony was not hired by Seattle Seawolves. The condition of hire is that he had to have a valid work visa,” said Balfour.
“We supported his claim for a work permit, and it was rejected. We resubmitted that work permit, and it was rejected again. It was rejected twice. From our point of view, there really is no basis for a claim, because he wasn’t eligible to work in the United States.”
Another dispute is the nature of a $7,500 payment to Healy’s wife in February. Healy left his job in December, claims his start date with the Seawolves was Jan. 1 and he made his first trip to Seattle Jan. 22. Several days into February he hadn’t been paid.
“The Seawolves didn’t pay anything to Tony. I felt sorry for the guy, so I leant him $7,500 so that he could pay his bills,” said Balfour. “That was a personal loan from me to him. It was not a transaction on the Seawolves or anything. That came out of my bank account.
“I did that for some of the players, as well, because it’s the right thing to do. Whenever people are in hardship you kind of want to help them out. So it’s unfortunate that Tony feels us trying to help him achieve the job of his dreams, he’s now turning it around and saying we were malicious or something, which is weird. We don’t run the INS.”
Seattle employed the largest contingent of Canadians in the league, including Phil Mack. He came to the Seawolves from the BC Bears, where he’d played under and assisted Healy. Once Healy’s visa was denied for the second time, Mack, originally tabbed as an assistant coach and a player, assumed the head coaching role.
At least one potential Seawolves player had his visa application denied like Healy. Mack also required a visa, but he didn’t move to the United States or begin working until his visa was approved, according to Balfour.
“I’ve gone through the process myself,” said the owner, an Irishman. “I have a degree of empathy for Tony, but he knew the risks. We’re going to hire him, but we need the visa. If you don’t get a visa, it’s a do-not-pass-go kind of thing.”
The Seawolves also mysteriously and quietly parted ways with another Canadian resident prior to the start of the season. The team announced the hire of Curry Hitchborn as its rugby development officer last September. He helped put the team together but wasn’t part of the season. The UBC coach was born in America, so his issue wouldn’t have been a visa.
"He helped us create the initial list of players," said Balfour of Hitchborn. "Whenever we found the players, you need to get on the ground to help the players become a team. It was at that junction when Curry decided he was going to stay in Vancouver."
After winning the inaugural MLR title and selling out every home game of their maiden season, the Seawolves announced a deal with Atavus for coaching, training and anaylsis services.