Hearing of lawsuit against Samoa Rugby Union begins

The hearing of a lawsuit filed by former Manu Samoa Coach, Fuimaono Titimaea Tafua, against the Samoa Rugby Union (S.R.U.) commenced in the Supreme Court on Tuesday. 

Fuimaono, who was appointed as the Head Coach on 13 September 2017, had his employment contract terminated in August 2018.

He is represented by lawyer, Satui Simativa Perese, while lawyer, Semi Leung Wai, is representing the S.R.U. Justice Tafaoimalo Leilani Tuala – Warren presided. 

Fuimaono's contract was terminated after a special meeting by the S.R.U. Board of Directors on 25 August 2018. 

S.R.U. provided a formal notice of the termination on 24 September 2018, almost a month after the termination. 

According to Fuimaono, there was a meeting on 26 August 2018 where he was told a different story. The meeting was between him, the Chairman of S.R.U., Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, other Board members and the S.R.U. Chief Executive Officer, Faleomavaega Vincent Fepulea'i. 

“I was told by the Chairman in that meeting to continue on my work and prepare my application to re-apply for the position,” Fuimaono told the Court. 

“But on the next Monday, I received a call from the H.P.U. Manager that they are preparing a letter to terminate my service. I had told him (H.P.U. Manager) that what he is telling me contradicts what the Chairman had told me. He (Tuilaepa) had also encouraged me to reapply for the position in which I did.”

Asked what the Chairman said during the meeting, Fuimaono said it appeared he was unhappy about the Manu Samoa's scores against Germany during the Rugby World Cup qualification round.

After receiving the call from the H.P.U. Manager, Fuimaono said he sought clarification from Faleomavaega on which path he should follow. 

“He told me to follow what the Chairman and the Board had instructed me to do,” he said. 

It wasn’t until 24 September 2018 that Fuimaono received the notice of termination of his contract from the C.E.O. 

Asked how he felt, Fuimaono said: “Any person who provided service for more than 30 years and a decision like this is made it really affects you mentally, it affects your family and it affects your children.

“I don’t know how to describe such a feeling but no words can describe how one feels and how you are affected by it. Having conducted your duty with all your knowledge and with all honesty and to have that ended it is a feeling that one cannot describe.” 

At this point, Fuimaono was asked if he had received any letter from the Board expressing any concerns over his performance and his responsibility as a coach. 

Fuimaaono said no, adding that they were pleased the Manu Samoa under his leadership had qualified for the Rugby World Cup.

The Court heard that Fuimaono was appointed in 2017 with the prime goal to have the Manu Samoa qualify for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Manu Samoa did just that after two wins over Germany in 2018.

“After the Manu Samoa, I continued to do voluntary work for the development of our Apia Provincial Club,” said the former Head Coach. 

“I did not look for work again because the media had reported that I was sacked and I felt reluctant to look for work elsewhere. Who would want to hire me when the whole of Samoa knows that I was sacked because that was the word being used.”  

Upon receiving the termination notice, Fuimaono did not accept it. 

He questioned the decision in a letter to the S.R.U. Chief Executive Officer. He argued that he had not been warned about his performance and that to the best of his knowledge, he had fulfilled and met his obligations under the contract. 

The Court heard that Fuimaono was not advised of the reasons for termination nor was he given the chance to respond to adverse allegations, if any, that he had therefore been deprived of his right to natural justice. 

In the letter penned by Fuimaono to S.R.U., he had asked for his grievance to be dealt with by mediation and he set out the remedies he sought. The remedies included a public apology from S.R.U. and full payment of his contract. 

In response to the letter from Fuimaono, the S.R.U. in a letter dated 16 October 2018, advised him that the “Board determined that the substantive basis for termination was a clause of the C.S.S.P. (agreement) which provided that “either party may terminate employment by giving one month notice in writing”. 

In addition, S.R.U. advised Fuimaono that its decision to “re-advertise the Head Coach  position, was from noted concerns on World Rugby’s recent 2018-2019 High Performance Annual Review held on the 2-3 August 2018”. 

The Court heard that following the review, World Rugby alerted Faleomavaega “in a letter of critical importance on the Manu 15s programme” of which the S.R.U. was urgently informed.

Lawyer Satui argued that for S.R.U. referring to the World Rugby’s review invites the “inference that the S.R.U. acted on World Rugby’s letter of critical importance, to terminate Mr. Taufua’s contract”. 

“And so that appears to be how the plaintiff a long time servant of Samoa Rugby, as a player, a volunteer coach at grass roots level, and as a successful coach on the international circuit came to get dumped from one of Samoa’s most profile and important positions,” said Satui.

In cross examination, Mr. Leung Wai asked Fuimaono what Manu Samoa’s and Germany’s rank at the time he was the coach. 

In response, Fuimaono said he does not remember. But Mr. Leung Wai questioned how he could not have known when he was the coach for the Manu Samoa. 

“Ranking is not important to me, the only important thing is for the Manu Samoa to qualify for the World Cup,” he said. 

“So you are asking me and I’m saying it does not matter what our rank is the most important thing is that we qualified.” 

Moving on, Mr. Leung Wai asked Fuimaono if he agrees that the “lawsuit against S.R.U. is based on your grievances that affects you only whereas the S.R.U. made the decision based on its holistic view on the impact and welfare on the development of rugby in Samoa”. 

“Do you accept that we need the money to fund for the tours, allowances for the rugby players,” asked Mr. Leung Wai. 

That is the normal practice, reply Fuimaono.

“My only request is about the contract and its termination which I feel is not right and everything you are talking about the development of rugby, I know and there are players in Europe that I had coached.”    

Justice Tafaoimalo then asked Fuimaono if he was given a probation period to which he responded no. 

Fuimaono told the Court that it wasn’t until the new head coach, Vaeluagaomatagi Steve Jackson, was appointed that he received the letter of termination for his employment. 

“I did not know that my application was unsuccessful until the media reported on the appointment (of the new Head Coach). 

“No one called me about being unsuccessful in application.”

About  World Rugby, Mr. Leung Wai then read out a document that states the S.R.U. operation depended on funding from sponsors. 

Some of those sponsors include the World Rugby which pledged $4million to S.R.U. in 2016, $5million in 2017 and in 2018 gave $6million while Government fund for S.R.U. continues to drop over the years. 

Mr. Leung Wai asked Fuimaono if he agrees that without the World Rugby fund, it would be difficult to develop rugby in Samoa.

It was also put to Fuimaono that World Rugby would not give Samoa funding unless Samoa abides by its guidelines.

In response, Fuimaono said he agrees. 

Mr. Leung Wai then asked Fuimaono if he was aware that he was not the successful candidate for the Head Coach position during the interviews in September 2017. 

The Court heard that a report from the panel of the interviewers showed that Fuimaono was ranked 6th among the candidates.

“You are correct but you must understand that I was the one that was awarded the contract,” said the former Head Coach. 

“That is not something I did.”

Mr. Leung Wai also cited a letter where the Chairman, Tuilaepa “supported and backed” Fuimaono’s appointment.       

The lawyer then asked questions in relation to a Performance Review for Fuimaono conducted by the World Rugby in 2018. 

The lawyer pointed out that the report highlighted that Fuimaono’s performance was “below expectations.”  

Fuimaono said he is aware of the time the review was made and was given a chance to respond to it. 

He reiterated that he did not look for other work after termination of contract from S.R.U. because he felt embarrassed with talks of him being “sacked”. 

But Mr. Leung Wai told Fuimaono that he could have easily set up his own business like the Rugby Academy Samoa run by Mahonri Schwalger that was also a player for Manu when he was the coach. 

In response, Fuimaono said he is doing similar work in developing rugby in Samoa “but it’s free of charge, I do it voluntarily”. 

Next to give evidence was S.R.U. C.E.O. Faleomavaega. 

He told the Court that the Board made the decision to appoint Fuimaono in 2017 over the overseas-based applicant that won the interview based on “cultural aspect” for the Manu Samoa. 

He said the panel that interviewed the Head Coach at the time had a representative from the World Rugby. 

Asked why Fuimaono was appointed despite not being ranked first for the interview by the panel, Faleomavaega said: “That decision was made by the Board (of S.R.U.).

 “There was review conducted at the time, the board took that it into consideration that we had started to lose the cultural aspect of the team which was very important.

“They thought also a person of Fuimaono’s statutory record as a hard disciplining person is the right person at that point of time.” 

Faleomavaega said he was attending a World Rugby meeting in Australia at the time the appointment of Fuimaono was made. 

It was revealed in Court that World Rugby covers 80 percent of Manu Samoa's team costs when they travel.

At the time he was in Australia, Faleomavaega said he was called aside by World Rugby officials expressing disappointment over the appointment of Fuimaono. 

He had told the W.R. officials to put their concerns in writing to S.R.U. 

 “Well at that time (in Australia) I was called aside by World Rugby officials to let me know to expect a letter from World Rugby to confirm their disappointment that the Board has appointed Fuimaono who was ranked 6th and contradicted the process and contrary to their minimum standards in the process,” he said. 

After receiving the letter, the C.E.O. wrote back to World Rugby justifying the reasons from the Board for Fuimaono’s appointment.

Faleomavaega emphasised that the concern from World Rugby over the appointment of Fuimaono meant that the funding for S.R.U. would be affected. 

“The complaint (from W.R.) is that we breached our H.P.U. investment agreement which is noted in there,” he told the Court. 

“And to acknowledge that the Union has breached condition of investment and it will cost the Union in the funding. It means that we have not met the conditions of agreement and they will withhold funding.” 

 Once the C.E.O. received the letter from W.R., he said it was rather concerning as there was a was a Northern Hemisphere tour planned at the end of November. 

He said he was concerned that the issue brought up by W.R. needed to be made known to the S.R.U. Chairman and the Board has to meet and address the issues. 

“My concern is looking at the overall planning of the union,” said Faleomavaega.

“The union was getting close to preparation for end of year tour and preparing for upcoming World Cup, the concerns brought up by World Rugby was serious enough to alert the board, I had to look at the overall picture of the Union and we cannot afford another issue where funding is the concern. 

“I decided to share the letter with the Chairman and he decided to call a special meeting the following day.” 

He added, his concern as C.E.O. is to look at the overall impact, if the Board had decided to appoint someone that ranked sixth in the interview previously. 

The Court heard that following the Board meeting it was approved that the position of Head Coach will be re-advertised.  

Faleomavaega said that decision was reaffirmed in a meeting between Fuimaono, the Chairman, himself and other Board members. 

The C.E.O. was also asked why the letter of notice for Fuimaono’s termination was only delivered a month later his termination.

In response, he said he had talked with Fuimaono on the phone where he was notified of the termination and was asked to pick up the letter. But that was not done and the letter was never delivered until a month later. 

The C.E.O. was also asked about his view that the World Rugby is dictating the decisions coming out of S.R.U. 

“I don’t think so,” he said.  “I think in Fuimaono’s appointment the Board decided to appoint him based on their view what is best for Manu Samoa at the time. 

“We have a lot of issues with World Rugby on daily operations we disagree on but we still manage to resolve most issues.

“The last few years, a lot of rebuilding phases with our relationship (with World Rugby)…and work to pay off our debts.”

The current debt for S.R.U. is T$1.3 million.  

The C.E.O. will be cross examined when the hearing continues.

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