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Ex-L.A. Times columnist's bias verdict, $7 million award voided

Posted On: Jan. 8, 2016 12:00 AM CST

A trial court judge has dismissed a $7.1 million jury verdict in an age and discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Los Angeles Times columnist on the basis he was never fired by the newspaper.

T.J. Simers was first employed by the Times in 1990 as a sports reporter, then worked as a columnist until August 2013, according to court papers in T.J. Simers v. Los Angeles Times Communications L.L.C.

In August 2013, he was told an investigation indicated he had violated certain professional standards and editorial ethics guidelines, and he was removed from his position as a columnist and assigned as a reporter instead.

A few days later, an attorney informed the Times on his behalf that Mr. Simers considered himself to be constructively discharged, and he did not return to work.

Mr. Simers filed suit against the newspaper, charging age and disability discrimination, constructive discharge and an economics damages claim. A jury in Superior Court in Los Angeles awarded Mr. Simers $7.1 million in November.

The L.A. Times then filed for a “motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.” In a ruling Monday, Superior Court Judge William A. McLaughlin cut $2.1 million of the award on the basis Mr. Simers had only been demoted, not constructively discharged, according to court papers.

His “resignation was based apparently on his prediction that conditions would be intolerable for him rather than any experience,” said the ruling. “The demotion itself is not a basis for a constructive discharge.”

The judge also granted the Times’ motion for a new trial on the basis there was insufficient evidence to sustain a constructive discharge claim and the resultant economic damages.

Then, on Tuesday, in an amended ruling, Judge McLaughlin voided the remaining $5 million award, holding it had been awarded because the jury erroneously believed Mr. Simers had been forced out of his job, according to reports.

Robin E. Shea, a partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete L.L.P. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said, “The big thing that really hurts Mr. Simers … I think was the fact that he hadn’t been fired.” That “changed everything,” she said.

“The court said demoting somebody is demoralizing and it’s depressing and it makes you feel terrible, but it’s not bad enough to amount to a discharge,” Ms. Shea said.