Jury Awards $7.13 Million to Former L.A. Times Sports Writer Due to Age and Disability Discrimination

ADA, Age Discrimination, Disability Rights
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T.J. Simers was a sports reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times from 1990 to 2013, when he was constructively discharged. Over the years, he probably wrote about many home runs, but in a Los Angeles courtroom, it was Simers who hit a grand slam. The jury in his age and disability discrimination case found in his favor and awarded him $7.13 million in damages. The case raised an interesting issue: Can circumstantial evidence and a jury that doesn’t find a defendant credible be enough to establish a case of discrimination?

For Simers’s lawsuit, the jury seemed to look at all the evidence, and although there was no “smoking gun” memo, e-mail, or conversation proving Simers lost his job because of his age (now 65) or disability (limitations due to a stroke and migraine headaches), the evidence as a whole showed the Times wasn’t credible, opening the door to a verdict for the plaintiff.

A Good Relationship Goes Bad

NYX

 

According to the L.A. Times’s account of the trial, here are the facts of the case:

  • Simers claims the newspaper discriminated against him and forced him to quit his position after he suffered a mini-stroke in March 2013. The verdict was decided in November.
  • He alleged his problems at the Times started after he suffered what was first diagnosed as a transient ischemic attack (or mini-stroke) in March 2013. Complex migraine syndrome was later diagnosed.
  • His work was closely scrutinized and criticized after his health issues, according to Simers. The then sports editor reduced his columns from three to two a week in May 2013, claiming prior columns were poorly written.
  • At the trial, Simers stated he was was shocked, troubled, and surprised by the criticism because the essence of his writing style hadn’t been criticized before the mini-stroke. He blamed the change on his health.
  • The Times argued age and disability were not the reasons for its actions. It stated Simers quit in September 2013 after being disciplined because he failed to fully disclose to his editors that he had an outside business relationship with a television producer. The newspaper saw that as a potential conflict of interest that needed to be disclosed under its ethics guidelines.
  • The Times claimed Simers hid a longstanding business relationship with the producer, and they were trying to develop a television project based on Simers’s life. Simers claimed that the Times was aware of the relationship and that the project never materialized. He claimed he couldn’t have used the paper to his advantage to promote the project because there was no project to promote.
  • The Times denied it fired Simers to provide more work for younger writers because, at the time, 90 percent of the newspaper’s sports staff were older than 40, and more than two-thirds were older than 50.
  • At the trial, the Times produced copies of e-mails to and from Simers, some of which stated his column was “as vigorous and delightful as ever” and urged Simers to “take as much time as [he needed]” to rest and recuperate.
  • In August 2013, Simers’s column was taken away, but the Times allowed him to stay and work as a reporter while keeping his full pay ($234,000/year) and benefits. He was later offered a one-year contract to continue as a columnist if he abided by the paper’s ethics guidelines. Editors stated that Simers’s failure to disclose the business relationship wasn’t grounds for firing but Simers had lost their trust.
  • Simers resigned in September 2013 and wrote for another newspaper for a year for a lower salary.

The Jury Doesn’t Believe the Newspaper

jury boxThe weeks of back and forth in the trial resulted in the jury questioning the Times’s actions because of the overall treatment Simers received. Jury Forman Orie McLemore said jury members couldn’t reconcile Simers’s past positive performance reviews with the paper’s response to the alleged ethics violation (taking away his column but keeping him on 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 was awarded $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 newspaper’s attorney stated it would appeal the decision.

Summing It Up

This may be a case where the fact the jury didn’t believe the Times’s explanation may be enough to decide in Simers’s favor. Under case law by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s not necessary for a plaintiff to show a “smoking gun” to prove discrimination.

  • The plaintiff needs to establish a prima facie case (Simers belonged to protected classes (age 63 and disabled), he was qualified to do the job, a negative employment action occurred (constructive discharge, or working conditions were so severe a reasonable person would quit), and he was replaced by someone younger and/or not disabled).
  • The defendant then needs to show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions (poor writing, failure to disclose possible conflict of interest).
  • The plaintiff must show the given reason is false and evidence of discrimination.

The Supreme Court has ruled that depending on the case, it may be enough for a jury not to believe a defendant’s reasons, opening the door to the plaintiff’s story of discrimination, to find in the plaintiff’s favor. In many discrimination cases, a verdict can go either way, and the court gives juries leeway to make a decision.

The Spiggle Law Firm represents those who have been discriminated against by their employers because of their age and disability. If you or a family member has suffered employment discrimination, contact our office so we can talk about the situation, discuss how the law applies, and evaluate your best options for moving forward.