A Los Angeles jury on Monday awarded former Times sports columnist T.J. Simers $15.4 million in damages against the newspaper for discrimination against him because of his age and disability.
It was the second time a jury had considered whether Simers should receive damages related to his claim that after 22 years at The Times he was demoted from columnist to writer in 2013 when he developed health problems.
A jury in 2015 had awarded Simers $7.1 million in economic and non-economic damages, but the judge overseeing that trial threw out much of the judgment.
Both Simers and Los Angeles Times, part of Chicago-based Tronc Inc., appealed the trial judge’s ruling. Tronc, now called Tribune Publishing, sold The Times to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong in 2018.
Sources familiar with the matter said that Tribune Publishing assumed liability for the Simers case as part of the sale. Tribune officials did not return calls seeking comment. Securities and Exchange Commission documents related to Tribune’s sale of The Times confirm that.
In January 2018, the Court of Appeal threw out Simers’ claim that the newspaper had created or permitted intolerable working conditions that led him to leave the newspaper in 2013 — a practice known as constructive termination. But the court agreed that Simers had been the victim of age and disability discrimination and sent the case back for the damages phase to be retried.
“It is incredibly gratifying for Simers and those in similar situations to see the court vindicated his claims of age and disability discrimination,” Carney Shegerian, one of Simers’ attorneys, said in a statement Monday.
Nick Rowley, who also represented Simers, said that, with interest, the publisher will owe $22 million to Simers and his wife, Ginny.
In a statement, Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning said, “We believe that the award is unreasonable. We successfully appealed an earlier award and are currently evaluating our legal options.”
Shegerian said in an interview that Monday’s verdict after an eight-day trial was for non-economic damages, including personal and emotional suffering, as a result of his treatment by the company.
Simers, 69, 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 the newspaper’s two top managers at the time — both of whom praised his writing and reporting.
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 agreed 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 disability — claims the newspaper’s owners said were baseless.
Simers took a buyout from the Register in June 2014 and retired.