Jury awards $7.13 million to ex-L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers

A jury awarded $7.13 million on Wednesday to former Los Angeles Times sports columnist T.J. Simers, who contended the newspaper discriminated against him and forced him out of his $234,000-a-year job after he suffered a mini-stroke in March 2013.

The verdict capped a six-week trial that included testimony from Simers, his former bosses at The Times and L.A. Dodgers ex-manager Tommy Lasorda.

Simers, 65, sued the newspaper in October 2013, alleging top editors fired him as a columnist and subjected him to discrimination because of his age and a disability.

The Times called his claims baseless and contended that Simers quit in September 2013 after being disciplined for failing to fully disclose to his editors an outside business relationship with a television producer. The newspaper's ethics guidelines require full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.

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, who joined The Times in 1990 and became a columnist 10 years later, initially sought $18 million in damages, but later revised his damages demand to $12.3 million.

Jurors awarded him $330,000 for past lost wages, $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.

In his lawsuit and at trial, Simers alleged that his troubles at The Times began only after he suffered what was first diagnosed as a transient ischemic attack, or mini-stroke, in March 2013 while covering baseball spring training in Arizona. He later was diagnosed with complex migraine syndrome.

After his health problems surfaced, Simers contended, his work drew increased scrutiny and criticism by Times Editor Davan Maharaj and Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin.

In May 2013, then-sports editor Mike James told Simers his three weekly columns would be reduced to two in an effort to improve their quality, citing several recent ones that were "poorly written or reflected poorly" on the newspaper.

"Simers was shocked, troubled and surprised because he had never been criticized for the very essence of his column style before his mini stroke in March of 2013, and he believed his health was the real reason these alleged issues were suddenly coming to light," his trial brief stated.

Times editors and their lawyers said Simers never complained of discrimination, because none occurred. They countered his contention that they were trying get rid of him to make room for younger, less expensive writers by noting that 90% of the sports staffers at the time were over age 40 and more than two-thirds were older than 50.

"The evidence in this case shows he was investigated and disciplined for what he did ... not his age, not his disability," Times attorney Emilio Gonzalez told jurors during closing arguments.

That evidence included emails between Simers and his editors that appeared to contradict his claim they were using his illness against him. In one email, Duvoisin wrote that Simers' column was "as vigorous and delightful as ever" and urged the ailing writer to "take as much time as you need" to rest and recuperate.

"We need another 20 years of columns out of you before you hang it up, so take whatever time you need to feel better," he wrote.

The key issue in Simers' case, according to The Times, was that he failed to fully disclose his relationship with a television producer who'd made a short video featuring the columnist, his daughter and NBA star Dwight Howard. The Times alleged that Simers concealed that he and producer Mike Tollin had a longstanding business relationship and were trying to develop a father-daughter themed television project based on the writer's life.

Instead, Simers told sports editor James that a "friend" was shooting the video, which he wanted to link to The Times' website to accompany his column, the newspaper's lawsuit states.

The issue came to a head in June 2013, when the Sports Business Journal reported that Tollin's company, Mandalay Sports Media, "is developing a TV comedy loosely based on the life of acerbic Los Angeles Times sports columnist T.J. Simers, one of several projects the 15-month-old sports production company has in the pipeline."

Tollin was quoted as saying the video, which was posted to The Times' website briefly and then widely viewed elsewhere, was made to "create buzz" for the TV project.

"You'll never know if the viral video will help the series get off the ground," Tollin told the publication. "But we know that it won't hurt."

When Times editors learned of the Sports Business Journal article on June 13, they suspended Simers with pay and commenced an internal investigation.

Simers maintained that his supervisors knew of his relationship with Tollin, had long known and approved of his efforts to launch a TV career, and that the father-daughter sitcom project was dead. He testified that he told Times editors "I have no TV show" and no business relationship with Tollin's company.

"And if there's no TV show, I certainly wasn't promoting a TV show that doesn't exist on our website," he testified. "I was dumbfounded."

Simers initially accused Times editors of punishing him under pressure from Arte Moreno and Frank McCourt, then the respective owners of the Angels and Dodgers, for columns he'd written about them. He later contended the editors were fabricating allegations to get rid of him and replace him with a younger writer.

"They had to make him look devious and underhanded and slimy ... someone who is not who he is: a brutally honest person," Simers' attorney, Carney Shegerian, told the jury.

The newspaper's investigation revealed emails it said proved the columnist had a continuing business relationship with Tollin and later tried to cover it up with a series of "denials, half-truths and evasive answers," Times attorney Gonzalez told jurors.

"He was not honest with his editors and, as a result, he was not honest with his readers," he said.

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Times Editor Maharaj said the columnist's actions did not rise to the level of firing, but that he had lost the trust of editors — and the privilege of writing a column.

"He had so many chances to tell us the truth and he didn't," he testified. "I honestly felt betrayed."

In August 2013, Simers' editors told him his column was being taken away and that he would become a reporter, keeping his full pay and benefits. At the urging of then-publisher Eddy Hartenstein, they relented and offered Simers a one-year contract to resume his column, on the condition that he agree to abide by the paper's ethics guidelines.

Simers instead resigned Sept. 6, 2013, one day after accepting a job at the Orange County Register with a salary of $190,000.

The next month he sued The Times, alleging that his working conditions were so unbearable he could not return and was, in effect, fired.

Less than a year later, he took a buyout from the Register and retired. He testified at trial that he "had run out of steam" and was writing many of his columns from a coffee shop instead of going to the ballpark.

kim.christensen@latimes.com

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