Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Judges hear appeal in age-bias case

Essex County CourthousesImage by joseph a via Flick
Courthouses on West Market Street in Newark.

Three appeals court judges heard oral arguments today in a bid by Victor E. Sasson to overturn an unfavorable jury verdict in his age-discrimination case against North Jersey Media Group, publisher of The Record.

Joshua L. Weiner, the Morristown lawyer who represents Sasson, and Samuel J. Samaro of the Pashman Stein law firm in Hackensack were given about 15 minutes each to supplement written briefs submitted to the court, along with a transcript of the five-day trial.

The judges asked the attorneys a number of questions, and took the appeal under advisement, giving no indication of when they will issue a decision.

When Sasson got up to leave the Newark courtroom, he saw Jennifer A. Borg, NJMG vice president and general counsel, but she didn't greet him. NJMG is paying an estimated $400 an hour for Samaro, who also defended the company at trial.

Sasson sued The Record after features Editor Barbara Jaeger chose Bill Pitcher, who was half his age and far less qualified, to replace Patricia Mack as food editor in 2006. 

He alleged age-discrimination under the state Law Against Discrimination. He also alleged retaliation, because he was fired in May 2008, several months after the suit was filed.

The Superior Court jury disagreed. Sasson represented himself at the trial in April 2010. He is arguing the judge, Joseph S. Conte in Hackensack, twice committed reversible error:

Conte permitted the use of posts from the Eye on The Record blog during cross-examination to impeach the plaintiff's credibility, and he allowed into evidence performance reviews dating to 1985 that weren't relevant to events of 2006-08.

Sasson believes Conte should have instructed the jurors to use the blog entries only for the purpose of judging the plaintiff's credibility -- and to disregard his views the paper kept on older, white male columnists, while silencing older black, Hispanic and female columnists. 

Here are excerpts from the Jan. 22, 2010, post in Eye on The Record:
"Reading The Record of Woodland Park today made me realize just how wrong all the numbers are. Not only do at least two stories contain confusing numbers, but it's clear the paper favors older white men as columnists over blacks, Hispanics and women.

"How many older male columnists does The Record need? Today, columns by Kevin DeMarrais, Harvy Lipman, Mike Kelley, John Cichowski and Peter Grad appear in the former Hackensack daily, which got rid of its only black and only Hispanic columnists, and one of its early female columnists. A Personal Finance column by veteran reporter Kathy Lynn appears today on the first Business page, making her the paper's third female columnist. Congratulations, Kathy. But when you count unfunny humor columnist Bill Ervolino, there are twice as many older males as females."
In another post, on Nov. 17, 2009, Sasson wrote:
"This paper also contains columns by Road Warrior John Cichowski and Mike Kelly, both of whom are so far over the hill, you can no longer see the hill. And to think the paper kept these turkeys, but silenced its only black columnist, its only Latino columnist and the only columnist writing about the heroics of  police officers, firefighters and EMTs."

During his oral argument, Samaro brought up a 2008 e-mail Sasson had sent Publisher Stephen A. Borg, replying to Borg's e-mail notifying the staff of awards The Record had won. 

Samaro noted that Sasson told the publisher the paper wouldn't be winning any awards for how it treated older workers. During the trial, NJMG cited that e-mail and others as the reason Sasson received a final warning letter.

Today, before the Appellate Division, Samaro's tone tried to convey, What a nerve this guy had e-mailing the publisher. That's why he was fired.

But Judge Victor Ashrafi, head of the three-judge panel, said, "You can't make that argument." 

The judge noted victims have a right to complain about discrimination without retaliation.

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