A judge has cut $2.1 million from a $7.1-million award to former Los Angeles Times sports columnist T.J. Simers, ruling Monday that there was little or no evidence to support a jury’s conclusion that he had been forced out of his $234,000-a-year job.
But while ordering a retrial on Simers’ claim of constructive termination, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William A. MacLaughlin let stand, with scant explanation, the jury’s award of $5 million in damages on his claims of discrimination based on age and disability.
Lawyers for The Times had asked MacLaughlin to void the entire verdict, which was rendered in early November after a six-week trial. The trial focused on several key issues, including whether Simers was forced out of his job, 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.
MacLaughlin ruled that Simers had failed to meet the test for constructive termination, namely that his employer created or permitted intolerable working conditions.
“Under such a test, an employee who is demoted is not simply permitted to quit and sue because they do not like the new assignment,” he wrote. “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.”
The judge did not explain his reasons for permitting the discrimination claims to stand, except to say that he found “there is substantial evidence, and reasonable inferences that can be drawn from that evidence, supporting the verdict for Simers on each such claim.”
The newspaper will appeal, said Hillary Manning, a Times spokeswoman.
“We are pleased that the court has agreed with us and ruled in our favor against Mr. Simers’ claim of constructive termination,” Manning said. “We will continue our appeal on the remaining issues and will work through the legal system until this matter is completely resolved.”
Simers could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Carney Shegerian, did not respond to a request for comment.
Simers, 65, who joined The Times in 1990 as a sports writer and left 23 years later as a columnist, 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 newspaper cut Simers’ three weekly columns to two in an effort to improve 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.
That August, 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.
The next month he sued The Times, 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.
The Times called his discrimination claims baseless and contended that Simers quit of his own accord.