LOS ANGELES (CN) - Sports columnist T.J. Simers' attorney on Monday urged a jury to award the writer $12.3 million in damages from the L.A. Times, for claims the newspaper forced him out after he collapsed on the job.
During closing arguments, attorney Carney Shegerian told the jury of four men and eight women there was enough evidence that the Times had constructively fired Simers for them to rule in his favor.
"We all know the difference, in my humble opinion, when you are wanted and when you are not wanted," Shegerian said, as the 65-year-old former columnist sat in the courtroom with his family, including his wife Ginny and daughter Tracy.
The Times claims it demoted Simers after finding he used his column and an Internet video to promote a business run by a friend, with whom Simers hoped to develop a TV show.
Simers sued the Times two years ago, claiming it pulled the plug on his decades-long career after he suffered a minor stroke in Phoenix, where he was covering the Dodgers' and Anaheim Angels' spring training.
Simers claims he was later diagnosed with complex migraine syndrome, a "serious disability" that the Times used as an excuse to make working conditions miserable, putting his writing under increased scrutiny, cutting his columns from three to two a week and then exiling him to the assignment desk as a blogger.
Simers claims the newspaper wanted him out because of his age, and lined up a columnist who was roughly half his age, Dylan Hernandez, a Dodgers beat writer for the Times.
The Times, naturally, sees the dispute through a different lens.
During the six weeks of trial in Superior Court Judge William MacLaughlin's downtown courtroom, the newspaper claimed that it allowed Simers to stay at the paper on his $234,000 a year salary, and that when it offered him a one-year contract he resigned and took a job at the Orange County Register on a $190,000 a year contract.
Before he left, the Times says, it was forced to suspend Simers in the summer of 2013 for a potential breach of its ethical standards.
The investigation that followed has been at the center of the trial, and arose from a Simers video interview with NBA star Dwight Howard.
Simers landed the exclusive interview with Howard that shows the then-Lakers player being schooled by Simers' daughter on how to shoot free throws.
Simers pitched the video to sports editor Mike James and an accompanying column for the newspaper. He told James that his friend, Hollywood producer Mike Tollin, would shoot the piece for free, according to court filings, so the sports editor agreed to post a link to the video at the Times website.
What the columnist failed to mention, the Times says, is that he had been in talks to produce a television comedy with Tollin about a father and daughter relationship, and that Tollin planned to use the Howard video to promote his company, Mandalay Sports Media.
The Times says that when it sent its own videographer and photographer to cover the event, Tollin barred them from filming.
After the story ran, Times editor Davan Maharaj took a look at the Dwight Howard video and came to the conclusion that it might be staged. Since the Times prohibits staged events, it ordered a link to the video removed from its website, according to the newspaper's October 2014 trial brief .
But the controversy did not end there. The Times felt it had to investigate Simers when a Sports Business Journal article was published after the Dwight Howard video went viral. The article reported that the video was created to promote Simers' and Tollin's television show.
But during closing arguments, Shegerian said the Times had invented "phony" excuses to get rid of Simers and tried to portray him falsely during trial as "devious," "underhanded" and "slimy."
"They knew upfront exactly what was going on," Shegerian said of the video. "No secrets. Nothing hidden."
Asserting that Simers was never known as reticent in the newsroom, Shegerian said that sports editor James and managing editors Maharaj and Marc Duvoisin knew beforehand there would be a link to the video in Simers' column.
Shegerian said there never was any television show. He said former Times editor Marla Dickerson investigated Simers and concluded that he did not breach any of the newspaper's ethics guidelines.
Simers has asked for $18 million in damages in a court filing, but Shegerian revised that figure and asked the jury to award Simers about $12.3 million.
In his own closing argument, Times' attorney Emilio Gonzalez called Simers' lawsuit frivolous.
Gonzalez said there is no evidence the newspaper's investigation was motivated by age or disability, and that Simers was motivated by "egotism," "pride," "arrogance" and "greed" to sue the newspaper.
Jurors have heard the same evidence "over and over" from Simers: that he wanted "millions and millions of dollars," Gonzalez said.
"This is a case about man who had a privileged position, abused that privilege, then refused to take any responsibility for his actions," Gonzalez told the jury.
Gonzalez said that when the Sports Business Journal article fell on the Times' desk the editors had no choice but to investigate.
When confronted, Simers failed to disclose that he had a business relationship and a development deal with Tollin, and was using his column to promote Tollin's work, Gonzalez said.
"He was not honest with his editors and as a result he was not honest with his readers," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez was to complete his closing argument on Tuesday.
Simers' attorney Courtney Rowley will deliver a rebuttal before the case is handed to the jury.
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