T.J. Simers gets his day(s) in court

Lost in the last few weeks of turmoil over Tribune's firing of the L.A. Times' publisher is another arcing storyline from the episodic drama, "As the Newspaper Turns."

No, not today's 20% drop in Tribune stock; I'm talking about the lawsuit filed in 2013 by former sports columnist T.J. Simers against the paper for wrongful termination. It's playing out this month in Superior Court downtown.

simers-register-pic.jpgThe trial began last week, and this morning attorney Courtney Rowley's opening statement laid out Simers' case in repetitive detail. (I had assumed his advocates were working on contingency, but maybe they're getting paid by the word.) After lunch, defense attorney Emilio Gonzalez was slightly more succinct in telling the jury how his team planned to prove that The Times and its overlord Tribune did not harass, retaliate or discriminate against or otherwise breach its employment contract with the involuntarily retired sportswriter; rather, that this is a tale of lies and cover-up.

Anybody with time and inclination to sit through what's anticipated to be weeks of wrangling might have a hard time finding a side to root for. Sadly, I had only today to witness this pissing match.

Simers, a skilled writer with an equally powerful gift for bullying arrogance and smug superiority with anyone he considers a lesser light, abruptly lost his thrice weekly column for reasons he says neither his supervisors nor the paper's management made clear. He claims it was about getting rid of older workers in favor of youth, about his health and about his penchant for dissing powerful figures (Frank McCourt, Arte Moreno) whose company some Times suits enjoyed, as well as their ad revenue.

The Times has said that if Simers suffered damages from the stressful situation that unfolded over the spring and summer of 2013, it was his fault, or maybe that of a third party. That Simers failed to disclose outside business relationships, then lied about his conflicts of interest. It claimed that Simers has embarrassed the paper as a "public behavior problem," and was given every opportunity to recommit to righteousness but chose instead to quit and go work for the Orange County Register.

Times Editor Davan Maharaj and Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin initially were named in the complaint, but their names have been dropped. Although they aren't scheduled to testify any time soon, they were both in the courtroom all day today. I asked Maharaj why they're no longer individual defendants, and he said he didn't know, adding that "we're corporate representatives," and that either he or Duvoisin probably would attend each day. Except for the jurors, they were the only open-collared males officially involved with the case.

One attorney familiar with the case told me that once they were dropped from the lawsuit, Simers' counsel had sought to ban them from the courtroom until they were called to testify. So they became corporate representatives, a designation, he said, that entitles them to attend whenever they wanted.

You have to wonder why this mess has been allowed to fester for so long, why it wasn't settled and the dirty laundry cleansed out of public view. I asked Simers if a settlement offer had been made. He told me to ask his lawyers. "I'm not allowed to say anything."

"That's not like you," I said.

"I know," he answered, wide-eyed.

Carney Shegerian, one of Simers' attorneys, said, "If they had made a legitimate offer we wouldn't be here." He also said that his team never had a specific number in mind to make this all go away.

Linda Savitt, an attorney for the defense, was similarly cagey when asked about a settlement, explaining that "There was a mediation," and that anything involved in that process is privileged.

I think we can assume the Times offered a number that Simers rejected and, let's hope, just because it's T.J., that he did so loudly and with his usual bluster.

Maybe it was because he was underdressed, but Maharaj seemed uncomfortable. I asked him about certain claims in the complaint, but he said he hadn't read it, had no information about any settlement offer or discussion of one, and by the way, had I seen the big photo spread on Syria in yesterday's paper? He also wanted to know how long my commute took this morning from Santa Monica.

Simers' complaint was a detailed account of how the paper supposedly manipulated his temporary disability into an excuse for chilling his strident voice. It described how management spun his paper-approved video encounter with then-Laker Dwight Howard into an undisclosed conflict of interest involving an agent, a script and a TV program Simers denied was ever an actual business deal.

If having an agent, if pitching scripts, were a firing offense, the L.A. Times newsroom would be populated only by food writers and page designers formatting text from scribes filing phone-reported stories remotely from Iowa -- this is Hollywood, people, where the valet at The Ivy has three scripts in turnaround.

The first witness scheduled was retired Sports Editor Mike James, who arrived early wearing a suit, tie and the demeanor of a guy who'd rather be having his toenails pulled out with pliers. We nodded, and he said, "This is really how I want to spend my retirement."

By the time he was called to the stand well after lunch, James had removed the tie (must be a Times dress code thing), and fulfilled his reputation as someone who could be situationally well-spoken but generally meek, a department supervisor whom management used to twirl around like a fork in spaghetti.

The way things were going, James could be on the stand until Halloween. Other names on the witness list include Tommy Lasorda, Chris Paul, Joe Torre, Ned Colletti and a bunch of Times staffers, including Bill Dwyre, Helene Elliott and Dylan Hernandez.

I'm sorry I won't get to hear what they have to say, and I'm in no position to choose a winner here. I know little about the case other than gossip, what I read in Simers' complaint and in The Times' answer, and what I heard today. But it sure sounds to me like age, health and ethics aren't really the issue. It seems to me the issue is a double standard of employee treatment, and is that against the law?

If The Times has ethical concerns about its journalists working for other media, why are some sports columnists (currently Bill Plaschke, formerly Simers) allowed to broadcast from The Times' newsroom several times a week live on ESPN when other writers have been told they're not allowed to write for sports magazines? If The Times truly is concerned with the public conduct of its reporters, how does it justify the hypocrisy of enabling Plaschke's high profile after he embarrassed the paper with his lurid, soft-porn comments about actress Helen Hunt during a sports radio host gig in early 2013?

Will the jury vote to force the paper to write Simers a check big enough to soothe his hurt feelings? Will they find his abrasive persona, or something else, compelling evidence that he deserved what he got? Will this case settle or reach a verdict before the plunging stock value motivates Tribune to sell the paper to Eli Broad?

Stay tuned.

Editor's note: I'm told this reality show is playing in Dept. 89 on the fifth floor of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse downtown.

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