A Los Angeles judge has overturned a jury’s award of $15.4 million in damages to former Times sports columnist T.J. Simers against the newspaper for age and disability discrimination, saying the amount was not justified because of misconduct by the plaintiff’s attorney and that the award was excessive.
Superior Court Judge William A. MacLaughlin ordered that a new trial be held in regard to what damages Simers should receive related to his claim. Simers said he was demoted in 2013 from columnist to a reporter once he developed health problems.
“Plaintiff is entitled to substantial compensation, but the damages awarded by the jury are excessive and cannot be justified by the evidence,” the judge ruled.
Simers’ attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment.
It would be the third time a jury must consider the sole issue of damages in the case. An appeals court has already upheld a verdict that Simers suffered age and disability discrimination at the newspaper.
In the most recent case, a jury in August awarded Simers more than $15 million in damages. But in his Dec. 23 ruling, MacLaughlin overturned the award and issued a scathing rebuke of Simers’ attorney.
Specifically, the judge faulted the attorney for presenting evidence about the newspaper’s finances to jurors. MacLaughlin said information about the paper’s finances should not have been presented to jurors or considered when determining damages.
“The misconduct of [Simer’s] counsel, which had no basis whatsoever in the evidence and violated the court’s instruction that the jury should not consider the defendant’s wealth, was so egregious, harmful and prejudicial that no instruction and admonition would have prevented the harm done and that nothing short of a new trial could or can alleviate that harm,” the judge wrote.
The judge ruled that there was no justification for $450,000 in damages awarded to Simers for the period in 2013 when The Times’ investigation into his conduct was ongoing but which took place before his demotion. MacLaughlin also found that the jury’s award of an additional $15 million in damages covering the period before and after the trial was excessive.
“It is not the act of harm that is compensable — it is, rather, the effect on the person and, in the court’s view, it is Simers who was, by far, the best witness to describe that,” MacLaughlin said in his ruling. Simers “testified that, contrary to the medical opinions, he does not have depression, that he deals with the sense of loss and that he is going on with his life, often through continued activity with his family.”
At the time the lawsuit was filed, the Los Angeles Times was part of Chicago-based Tronc Inc. Tronc, now called Tribune Publishing, sold The Times to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong in 2018. But Tribune Publishing assumed liability for the Simers case as part of the sale.
At the time of the jury’s decision, Simers’ attorney, Carney Shegerian, said the verdict on age and disability discrimination was a vindication for the sports columnist and his family. His lead trial lawyer, Nick Rowley, said it would eventually mean about a $22-million payout because of interest.
Tribune’s lawyers, in appealing the damages, contended Simers suffered minimal harm and that the stress he felt was health-related and not the personnel investigation into his conduct.
Simers joined The Times in 1990 as a sportswriter 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 top two 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. Simers took a buyout from the Register in June 2014 and retired.