Jury speaks loudly in Simers v. The Los Angeles Times

simers-register-pic.jpgIt was nice today in downtown Los Angeles, the kind of day you might walk around and smell the flowers or the bus exhaust, or sit on a park bench and watch, as former L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers used to write, "these people [who] live among you."

Today in downtown L.A., Simers walked around, near the courthouse, for more than an hour. He was watching people, but ask him now what he saw and he probably won't remember. At 10:45, his phone rang. Today was verdict day in the re-trial of Simers' 2013 lawsuit against his erstwhile employer for wrongful termination.

He took a seat on a park bench nearby.

After six years, two trials and an appeals court ruling, Simers sat, waiting for the phone to ring again. The first call, from his lawyer, announced that the jury was back. Another call would announce the verdict. Simers benched himself, too nervous to go inside the courtroom to hear it in person. What if the call didn't go his way?

Simers v Tribune Co., et. al. first went to trial in September 2015, and lasted six weeks. I was in the courtroom one day then, for opening statements and a tiny slice of witness testimony.

Simers claimed that the Times essentially forced him to resign because he was too old and had inconvenient health issues. Discrimination on the basis of age or disability is illegal, but proving such claims is very difficult, and a tie in these situations generally does not go to the runner, especially when he resigns, then runs all the way to the Orange County Register, as Simers did.

The Times claimed that any stress Simers incurred from events that occurred in the spring and summer of 2013 was his own fault; that he had failed to disclose outside business relationships, and pursued conflicting interests.

The Times should have settled the case then. That jury found Simers credible and sympathetic, a descriptor never before applied to the abrasive reporter. The verdict was that Simers' grief was righteous, and worth $7.1 million to be paid by the troglodytic Tribune company that ran the paper then.

It was never entered into evidence, so Simers' charm probably wasn't what won the jurors' hearts. It probably had to do with what looked like bullying. People who wrote in Simers' performance review in February 2013 that he was one of the paper's "must read" writers, by June had relieved him of his column. Being snarky and sometimes mean isn't illegal, and in the hands of a decent reporter and a gifted writer such stories draw eyes to the page and screen. So why didn't the paper settle this mess?

The Times planned to appeal the first verdict, but a month later, the trial judge, William MacLaughlin, voided the award. He deemed Simers unentitled to economic damages, but said that the case for discrimination and emotional distress could be retried. Both sides whined (aka "appealed"), and in January 2018, a state Court of Appeals agreed with MacLaughlin's ruling to dump the award, and re-try the matter. If the result was the same, they would re-do the math.

Eighteen months later, the opponents were still circling each other, looking for a settlement opening that didn't present. As Simers said today, "We never got a legitimate settlement offer, and we tried. ... My original intent [in suing] was noble -- it was stupid, but noble. I was trying to make a point for older journalists. After six years it wasn't so noble. They spent a good deal of time ripping me the way they used to like me [ripping people] on Page 2."

The second trial began Aug. 5. Simers' team called a few witnesses, including current sports columnist Dylan Hernandez and former Sports Editor/columnist Bill Dwyre. The defense called one witness, a physical therapist who had treated Simers for a shoulder problem that had nothing to do with anything.

This morning, on the park bench, between phone calls, Simers sat and waited. Fifteen minutes passed. The phone rang.

The verdict was another shocker: The jury still liked Simers, they really liked him. The value of its affection was $15,450,000 -- more than twice the first award. And the paper is also on the hook for legal fees, interest and other court costs. Nick Rowley, one of Simers' attorneys, said in a news release that the newspaper might have to fork over $22 million. Efforts to reach The Times' defense counsel and an editor at the paper were unsuccessful.

Simers, however, was happy to talk. But, wholly out of his columnist character, he said he didn't want to gloat. In fact, after six years, he does seem like a changed man. "It sounds crazy," he said, "but the money didn't matter. ... It's a good day for journalism. There are a lot of journalists out there with no chance to do this. I hope this verdict gives them confidence to fight."

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