Whoa. The downtown jury in T.J. Simers' Superior Court lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times came back with a verdict today giving the retired sports columnist $7.1 million for age discrimination. His editors tried to downgrade Simers as a columnist (making $234,000 a year) in 2013, they say after he got entangled in a conflict of interest over a video starring the Lakers' Dwight Howard and a possible TV show. Simers says the paper knew all about his side work and that they moved on him after he suffered a mini-stroke on the job. He previously had also linked his attempted demotion to influence from Angels owner Arte Moreno and Dodgers owner Frank McCourt.
From the Times story on the jury verdict:
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury of eight women and four men deliberated for two days. Foreman Orie McLemore said afterward that the panel could not reconcile Simers' history of positive performance reviews with The Times' response to the ethics violation, which involved taking away his column but keeping him on staff as a reporter.
"It seemed that they didn't deal with Mr. Simers in a proper manner," McLemore said. "How can you take someone who's been doing that well and then all of a sudden he's not up to par? I have got to feel there's something there."
Simers declined to comment on the verdict. The Times plans to appeal.
"We believe the allegations Mr. Simers made against the Los Angeles Times are unfounded, and we are filing an appeal," said Hillary Manning, a spokeswoman for The Times. "Our editors acted to protect the integrity of the newspaper and to uphold fundamental principles of journalistic ethics. We will continue to work through the legal system to resolve this matter."
Simers had originally sought $18 million, then in closing their case his lawyers asked the jury for $12.3 million. The verdict came back with damages of $330,000 for lost salary, $1.8 million for future economic damages and $5 million for past and future emotional pain and suffering. The panel declined to award punitive damages, the Times story said.
This caps an interesting day for the LA Times. Earlier in the day, parent company Tribune Publishing offered to pay $3 million in bankruptcy costs for Freedom Communications in exchange for the right to bid when the Orange County Register and its parent are sold at auction. Per the Wall Street Journal: "The offer could set up a bidding war for the publisher between the Los Angeles Times owner and an investment team that includes current management. Freedom Communications entered bankruptcy with a bid from its current CEO, Richard E. Mirman, a former casino executive, and Orange County developer Mike Harrah."
Also today, the Columbia Journalism Review posted a long story on the Times and its messy recent relationship with Chicago and Tribune Publishing. Headline: A billionaire, a fired publisher, and a spectacle at the LA Times. Austin Beutner and Eli Broad are subjects of the story. Sample:
The public drama was perhaps unprecedented among the nation’s top newspapers: a national chain firing a publisher whose billionaire associate made an unwanted attempt to buy the chain’s flagship property. The sequence of events made for a bizarre, high-stakes circus that shows few signs of abating.
“There’s still very serious interest in trying to buy the LA Times to maintain its local connection and coverage,” says Mickey Kantor, a former US Secretary of Commerce who signed the letter and has become a sort of informal spokesman for the cause. “There is great disappointment in what Tribune did, not only in removing Austin Beutner, but also not assuring the Times would maintain its stance as the leading outlet in Southern California.”
The correspondence also touched off an unusual lobbying campaign among the upper crust of the local political class, aiming to pressure Tribune Publishing to sell. Within days, a dozen city council members sent a similar letter, while the county board of supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling for local ownership. Members of the state legislature and civic leaders from the San Fernando Valley added their own respective letters in the following weeks.
It was a peculiar confederation to be sure, especially given that the Times’ civic mission relies on vigilance and skepticism toward such powerful interests. But uncertainty lays fertile ground for the seeds of desperation, and the Times newsroom has repeatedly found itself a struggling protagonist in the more than decade-long tragedy of American newspapers. After Tribune Publishing announced in October yet another round of staff cuts—like déjà vu all over again—the newsroom, too, joined the chorus.