Judge voids ex-columnist T.J. Simers' $7.1-million jury award against L.A. Times

A judge on Tuesday voided the remaining $5 million of a $7.1-million jury award to a former Los Angeles Times sports columnist, ruling that he was not entitled to any damages on his claims that the newspaper discriminated against him because of his age and a disability.

The action by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William A. MacLaughlin amended a ruling he issued Monday that cut $2.1 million from damages jurors awarded to T.J. Simers for lost earnings. On Tuesday, MacLaughlin also struck all $5 million in damages for emotional distress.

The judge’s ruling, which is subject to appeal, nullifies the jury’s findings on key issues in a six-week trial that ended in early November: whether Simers was forced out, as he claimed, or left the paper of his own will after he was disciplined for not fully disclosing a conflict of interest, as his editors contended.

On Monday, MacLaughlin ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support Simers’ claim of constructive termination, namely that the newspaper had created or permitted intolerable working conditions. Instead, the judge ruled, Simers had quit his $234,000-a-year job of his own accord.

“An employee who is demoted is not simply permitted to quit and sue because they do not like the new assignment,” he wrote Monday. “While it may be a difficult experience to be criticized and demoted, an employee’s embarrassment and hurt feelings do not transform a resignation into a constructive discharge.”

In his initial ruling, the judge said there was “substantial evidence” to support Simers’ discrimination claims, but he did not address the issue of the resulting damages. On Tuesday, MacLaughlin amended the ruling to reflect that jurors had awarded $5 million for emotional distress based, to an unknown extent, on their erroneous conclusion that Simers had been forced out.

“Further, because it can’t be determined what amount may have been awarded by the jury for emotional distress arising from a constructive discharge, a new trial is granted on the non-economic damages that were awarded,” he wrote.

Unless MacLaughlin’s ruling is reversed on appeal, the constructive termination claim cannot be retried. The discrimination claims may be retried, but it is unclear whether Simers will pursue that course, especially because he could no longer link his emotional distress to his departure from the paper.

His attorney, Carney Shegerian, did not respond to requests for comment. Simers could not be reached and did not respond to a request for comment made through Shegerian’s office.

Hillary Manning, a Times spokeswoman, said the paper will appeal MacLaughlin’s decision to let the discrimination claims stand.

“We are gratified by the court’s ruling and will continue to work to correct the discrimination finding,” she said. “Our editors acted honorably in their efforts to protect the integrity of the newspaper, which we believe will be reflected in the legal resolution.”

Simers, 65, joined The Times in 1990 as a sports writer and became a columnist 10 years later. He alleged in his lawsuit and at trial that his troubles began after he suffered what was initially diagnosed as a 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 came under increased scrutiny and criticism by Times Editor Davan Maharaj and Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin.

In May 2013, The Times cut Simers’ three weekly columns to two in hopes of improving their quality, citing several recent ones that were “poorly written or reflected poorly” on the newspaper.

The next month, Simers was suspended with pay after the Sports Business Journal reported that he and television producer Mike Tollin were developing a comedy based loosely on the writer’s life. Times editors said Simers had violated the newspaper’s ethics guidelines on conflicts of interest by not fully disclosing his business relationship with Tollin, who had made a short video featuring the columnist, his daughter and NBA star Dwight Howard.

Simers maintained that his immediate supervisors knew of his relationship with Tollin and that the sitcom project was dead.

In August 2013, after an internal investigation, Simers' editors told him his column was being taken away and that he would become a reporter, keeping his full pay and benefits. They later offered him 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, a day after accepting a job at the Orange County Register with a salary of $190,000.

He sued The Times in October 2013, alleging that his working conditions were so unbearable he could not return and that he was, in effect, fired. He also claimed he was subjected to discrimination because of his age and a disability — claims the newspaper said were baseless.

Simers took a buyout from the Register in June 2014 and retired.

Twitter: @kchristensenLAT

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