Verdict: On November 4, 2015, a California jury awarded former Los Angeles Times sports columnist T.J. Simers $7.1 million after finding the newspaper discriminated against him based on his age and disability. The jury deliberated for nearly two days after a six-week trial, ultimately awarding Simers $330,358 for past economic damages, $1.8 million for future economic damages, $2.5 million for past noneconomic damages, and $2.5 million for future noneconomic damages.
Simers worked at the Times for 22 years. After he suffered a transient ischemic attack, also known as a mini-stroke, the paper reduced his workload from three weekly columns to two and later asked him to accept a demotion that would take away his column entirely. The paper said that the demotion was due to poor performance, even though Simers had consistently received positive reviews, before the mini-stroke, during his long tenure at the Times. The paper also accused Simers of an ethical violation for failing to disclose an alleged conflict of interest, though an internal investigation allegedly cleared him of any ethical wrongdoing. The paper suspended Simers for the alleged ethical violation and issued a “final written warning” threatening termination, even though it had never given him a preliminary warning. Simers resigned in the wake of the warning and filed suit one month later.
Commenting on the verdict, the jury foreman explained that the jury’s decision was based mostly on the fact that Simers had received consistently positive reviews from the newspaper until he suffered the mini-stroke and that the Times did not follow its own disciplinary policy when it failed to give Simers an initial warning before his final written warning.
The Times, for its part, argued that it had not constructively terminated Simers when it offered him a demotion. Two of Simers’s editors testified that they had offered him the ability to keep his column if he acknowledged his ethical error. Simers allegedly refused to do so.
Impact: The $7.1 million verdict should remind employers that significant damage awards are possible even without punitive damages. Employers should be conscious of how an employment decision will be perceived in context. A rapid change in tenor regarding a distinguished employee following a conspicuous health event, appears to have influenced the jury. Even though the jury refused to award punitive damages, it allocated $5 million to past and future noneconomic damages for pain and suffering. Thus, employers should be aware of the possibility of an unanticipated damage award above and beyond the employee’s compensation.