Should salaried reporters be able to pitch scripts to Hollywood? Do they have to stand down when told not to criticize friends of the publisher, or advertisers? Can they be fired because of their age or medical issues?
These are the issues that ex–Los Angeles Times sports columnist T.J. Simers is raising in a lawsuit against his former employer:
The journalist, now at the Orange County Register, claims that he was essentially fired after 23 years at the Times because of his “complex migraine syndrome,” his age (63), and because he was warned that continuing coverage disliked by onetime Dodgers owner Frank McCourt would get him axed.
The suit, which names the Times' parent, Tribune Company, editor-in-chief Davan Maharaj, managing editor Marc Duvoisin and McCourt himself, was filed yesterday in Los Angeles Superior Court.
When reached by the Weekly today, a Times spokeswoman said no comment. We obtained a copy of the suit.
First, the filing alleges that Simers was told not to write anything negative about McCourt because of McCourt's relationship with Times publisher Eddie Hartenstein.
The suit says there was some concern on the bosses' part that Dodger players were giving to the Mattel Children's Charity instead of McCourt's Dodgers charity, and that they didn't want Simers giving press to the Mattel organization.
Simers then alleges that his questioning of UCLA football coach Jim Mora at a news conference in November prompted his bosses to call him out for an alleged “public behavior problem.”
His columns were reduced from three a week to one in May, the suit says.
Simers' coverage of the Angels and its owner, Arte Moreno, prompted criticism from his bosses after the team became an advertiser with the paper, the filing alleges.
In spring, after Simers shot a YouTube video of his daughter teaching former Lakers player Dwight Howard how to shoot baskets, which the suit says was done with the paper's permission and with a Times' photog on-hand, a “third party” alleged that the writer was floating a TV script based on his life. In the filing, Simers says that's not true.
The suit says the paper was “aware” that Simers has an agent and that he was peddling other scripts, however. (And to this we must say, in our own experience as a onetime staff writer at the paper, that it's not unusual at all for Times reporters to have scripts floating around. We never once heard about supervisors having a problem with it. Two words: Steve Lopez.)
However, Simers says his bosses questioned him about the video's possible use “to promote a show about Simers' life” and told him they would investigate further.
This, he says, caused him further stress as he dealt with his medical condition. (In March he reportedly experienced a “mini-stroke,” though this is not mentioned specifically in the suit.)
His column was taken out of the paper in June, causing further stress, the suit claims.
In July, Simers says, he was called into a meeting with Maharaj and Duvoisin and warned that shopping a script “and the Howard video” violated the paper's ethics code — a code he says he hadn't ever seen, according to the suit.
His bosses dug through his Times email account, the filing claims, and came up with a 2011 script pitch, prompting a “final warning notice” in August over alleged ethics violations, even though Simers says he'd never received a formal warning before.
(Clearly, if true, the bosses were just setting him up for the guillotine at this point, rightly or wrongly.)
Simers says he was demoted to lowly general assignment reporter. After asking his bosses about his job status, the columnist says he was offered a one-year contract that would allow them to fire him at any time for any reason.
It was a deal he didn't take, apparently, so no formal firing ever happened, at least not according to our reading of the suit.
His last paycheck came in early September, the filing says, and Simers soon bolted for the Register.
Alleged monetary damages sought were not specified.
[Update at 4 p.m.]: Times vice president for communications Nancy Sullivan eventually issued a statement for the paper's own piece about the suit:
We wished T.J. Simers well when he left the L.A. Times to write for the O.C. Register and continue to do so. But the claims in his lawsuit are without merit. As this is now an ongoing litigation, we will defer further comment.