Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Louisville | Document in age-discrimination case claims multi-year plan to 'get rid of the old guard'

More than a year after one of Gannett's most highly paid former circulation executives charged in a lawsuit that his dismissal constituted age discrimination, both sides are now careening toward what could be an explosive trial in a Kentucky state court next month.

Mike Huot was 61 years old when he was laid off as The Courier-Journal's chief of circulation in September 2011 during a Gannett-wide restructuring that led to the creation of Gannett Publishing Services. He'd worked for Gannett 25 years, got paid nearly $300,000 a year in salary and bonuses, and held the paper's corporate membership at the exclusive Valhalla Golf Club. Both his wife and son worked at the paper, too.

Both sides agree on at least one point: In dismissing him, Corporate told Huot his job had been eliminated.

But in his lawsuit, Huot says age was the real issue, and that his job was not, in fact, eliminated -- just handed to a younger employee working for less. Indeed, after he was laid off, Corporate moved another company circulation executive, Tony Simmons, 49, to Louisville to take up Huot's duties. He was paid only $200,000 a year.

Whether Simmons assumed all or only some of those duties is in dispute, and goes to the heart of a case that's certain to draw widespread interest across Gannett. Employees in the trenches have filed a handful of age bias suits against the company after Corporate ordered thousands of layoffs over the past seven years. But Huot's case stands apart because he was a high-ranking officer privy to sensitive information Gannett would rather keep from the public realm.

Now, some of that's leaching out in his Jefferson Circuit Court case file. In a 25-page response to Gannett's request the suit be dismissed before trial, Huot and his attorney have alluded to company e-mail and performance evaluations, plus depositions and other documents they've uncovered. Collectively, they open a rare window on Gannett's ordinarily secretive internal operations.

So far, many of those documents are sealed from public view under an agreement between Huot and Gannett's attorneys. At trial next month, some of them could be made public, however.

Same, or different?
Huot says Simmons got everything but the job title -- his specific responsibilities, his office, and his direct reports, including Huot's administrative assistant. Like Huot, Simmons also was made a member of the Courier-Journal's operating committee.

Gannett rejects Huot's age discrimination charge. It says Simmons only got some of Huot's duties, according to the company's motion for dismissal. Where Huot reported to the C-J's publisher at the time, Arnie Garson, Simmons reported to a regional Gannett Publishing Services executive in Cincinnati. Also, Simmons was paid a lower salary: $168,000 vs. $223,000 for Huot. And he got a smaller bonus, $27,000 vs. Huot's $48,000.

Plus, Gannett says it considered Huot for a new job within the just-launched publishing subsidiary. The company eventually gave it to another employee, Bob Sutherland, who was two years older than Huot.

Huot hasn't produced a smoking gun yet: a Gannett document, for example, saying explicitly that Corporate targeted him because of age.

But he's found a witness who says his dismissal followed deliberations dating back several years about jettisoning "the old guard." The witness, Jerry Haywood, a former Gannett finance executive, attributed that phrase to Randi Austin, now a regional human resources executive in the U.S. community newspaper division, according to Huot's court filing.

"There were discussions as early as 2006 regarding the termination of members of the 'old guard' and specifically Mike Huot," the filing says, citing an affidavit signed by Haywood. "Randi Austin stated that Gannett intended to 'get rid of the old guard' and that she believed Gannett would terminate Mike Huot's employment."

The 2006 timeframe brought the start of huge layoffs across Gannett, many involving workers in their 50s and up, as the company raced to cut costs amid rapidly declining newspaper advertising sales. Companywide employment plunged to under 31,000 last year vs. nearly 50,000 in 2006.

At the time he was laid off, Huot was one of the company's most honored and highest paid employees. He'd won the President's Ring 14 times, and his combined salary and last bonus was $271,000.

'Go for more Chardonnay'
Huot claims Corporate wanted to get rid of him before the Gannett Publishing Services launch, but used the unit's formation and a series of related job cuts as cover to avoid the appearance of age discrimination. He cites an e-mail exchange between Austin and Michael Kane, president of the East Group, which included the Courier-Journal:

On Aug. 19, 2011, Kane wrote: "After yet more back-and-forth today . . . I think we now have everyone officially comfortable waiting until late September to deal with the Huot situation, one way or the other! Might kill me first, but that's a different problem. :-)"

Austin replied: "Just go for more Chardonnay. And make it the good stuff."

Corporate might have dodged Huot's lawsuit if it had just paid him more generous severance benefits. Instead, it gave him one week's pay for every year of service, a total of just 25 weeks -- the same benefit offered to the company's hoi polloi.

Simmons, meanwhile, has already moved on. Last month, he started a new Gannett Publishing Services job at Corporate's headquarters in McLean, Va.: director of distribution operations and technology. On the Courier-Journal's website, he's still listed in his old job, however.

The back and forth between Huot's attorneys at Goldberg & Simpson and Gannett's at Dinsmore & Shohl may be the usual saber rattling that occurs as two parties look for a way to end their dispute in private. Huot has asked for compensatory and punitive damages.

Judge Fred Cowan could grant Gannett's request for dismissal, which would end the case -- subject to any appeal. Or, Huot and the company could reach a settlement that might include a financial award.

For now, though, a trial is set for Nov. 19 in Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville. If it gets to that point, we can expect far more interesting disclosures to become public.

Related: Here's a copy of Huot's original seven-page complaint. Plus: Speaking of courtroom dramas, watch this trailer for 1982's The Verdict, starring Paul Newman.


  1. I am hoping this case isn't settled because these issues need to be tried and heard by a jury of his peers. This case has the potential to create new laws regarding age discrimination.

  2. Okay, all respect for Michael Kane is hereby evaporated in my brain. He toyed with folks in the last round of layoffs, now this nonsense. Can't wait to see this clowns in deposition.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Here's Gannett's worst nightmare: The company offers a big financial settlement, and Huot and his attorney turn it down -- insisting that they want to take it to the court on principal.

    Then, a sympathetic jury, distrustful of a big Eastern media conglomerate, hands Huot a victory -- and a financial award far in excess of what he asked for.

    In other words: the plot of the 1982 courtroom thriller The Verdict, starring Paul Newman.

  5. Straight up Gannett embarked on age discrimination. However, Gannett legal counsel aren't stupid. A smattering of younger people, albeit a far lower percentage compared against "the old guard," were jettisoned as well as indeed cover. Starting about eight years ago, Gannett turned into an ageist company. You can see plenty of evidence for that by some of the posts on this blog that smugly deride older people as somehow not up to snuff, regardless of a long history of excellent reviews. After all, wasn't the point of loyalty and long-term commitment, indeed institutional memory, consistently encouraged with incentives (e.g., vacation weeks tied to length of service, etc.)? Instead all that loyalty and long-term commitment was rewarded with being targeted for the gutter en masse, affording not even the decency of a case-by-case. And that's the case of age discrimination.

  6. Then Simmons is brought in to absolutely decimate and destroy what's left, letting more damn good circulators hit the road with no real reason why. I believe those let go to cover the Huot removal should band together and file suit also.

  7. "these issues need to be tried and heard by a jury of his peers"

    A jury is comprised of the defendant's peers, not the plaintiff's.

  8. Chardonnay Kane. Heh.

  9. Rand-I Austin is a snake and is not to be trusted.

  10. The hubris of Kane and Austin is stunning. How is it that senior executives with that much experience are writing emails detailing the ins and outs of termination discussions?

    1. Reporters are told to never write anything -- in a paper notebook, an e-mail, a story, a Facebook posting -- they wouldn't want to see in print on the front page. That's how you avoid libel suits.

      Kane has a B.A. in communications/journalism from Virginia Tech in 1981. I don't see anything in his careeer history showing whether he ever worked in a newsroom.

      Austin has no journalism background whatsoever.

      Still, as 9:25 notes, Management 101 and H.R. 101 say to be very careful when discussing and writing about plans to fire an employee. Among many things, no joking allowed.

      But well-paid people do dumb things all the time. When I interviewed for a Gannett job one time, the interviewer -- a very experienced manager -- asked if I was married. That's a no-no.

    2. As an applicant, I was asked - over the phone, in advance of the interview - how old I was. This was while the person was looking over my resume and after it came up that I hadn't attended college immediately after high school.

    3. Kane LOVES email. In fact, I'd argue he prefers it over face-to-face communication so he doesn't have to deal with people directly. I'd imagine a read through his emails would uncover more than this nugget!

  11. will follow this case ! i was a VP for the company for 37 years (11 years under gannett ownership) i was 62 1/2 the day i was told my position was eliminated because of the GPS structure. will be following this case, and may file my own. my number 2 got the corporate job, and my #3 became the GM at the production center. both younger than me. i also have rings, (thinking about selling them ).

    1. i've contacted Huot's attorney's office to see if i can help of file my own suit. i'm sure there's many more of us in the same situation.

    2. A friend of mine talked about melting down her rings and getting the money for them. Even with all the ugliness of what has happened in this company, when those rings were given, they were well deserved and they meant something at the time. I wouldn't let the new guard take that away from you.

  12. Is there a statute of limitations deadline on filing an age discrimination claim? Huot's two-weeks-a-year award is much more than many experienced loyalists received. That alone might move some of us to consider our own claims.

    1. Read the complaint. They only offered 1 week per year of service.

    2. 10:15 apparently missed this paragraph in my post:

      Corporate might have dodged Huot's lawsuit if it had just paid him more generous severance benefits. Instead, it gave him one week's pay for every year of service, a total of just 25 weeks -- the same benefit offered to the company's hoi polloi.

  13. At my site a certain manager has repeatedly referred to "good young" hires and makes "jokes" about people being too old to understand tech issues.

  14. A couple of interesting timeline things from the full filing:
    - The initial termination discussions were May/June 2011
    - In August 2011, two things happened - they decided not to terminate until the GPS reorganization and Kane sent the email removing the East Group responsibilities and telling Huot to focus on Louisville.
    - The arguments in the filing all cite Huot's career, but nothing indicating that during the 2010-11 time frame, he had received good evaluations. Nothing that says he didn't, but certainly an evaluation during that time that was strong would be compelling evidence for the third leg of the test, that Huot was performing well in his job. Seems odd that he didn't cite one if that was the case.

    Huot might well be right about the age discrimination. But the facts presented — and the ones left out — leave a couple of possibilities open: One, that Huot could handle Louisville, but performed poorly in his East Group role, leading Kane to demote him before the final termination. Or, Huot did fine with the East Group responsibilities but at the expense of his role in Louisville. Gannett's filing in this case arguing for summary judgment would probably answer those, as the most logical argument for them seems to be kicking the third leg of the test out from under Huot by arguing that he wasn't getting the job done. (Again, that could be a set-up job where the evaluations were deliberately downgraded to give Gannett the paper reasons to fire Huot.) Jim, have you seen the Gannett filing, or just Huot's?
    Before the piling on begins, I'm not a corporate apologist. Just an investigative reporter looking at the paperwork and trying to figure out how the pieces fit together. Huot's emphasis on how he had no East Group responsibilities at the time he was fired in conjunction with the timing of the removal of those responsibilities raised some questions that probably only the Gannett filing can answer.

    1. 8:30 touches on a few details I set aside because my post was already running long.

      In addition to being C-J circulation director, Huot also was East Group circulation director for more than 20 other dailies -- until Kane told him to focus solely on Louisville in August 2011, a month before Huot was canned.

      Simmons, replacing Huot, wasn't given those East Group duties, however.

      In this regard, Huot and Gannett are each interested in delineating job duties in opposing ways.

      For Gannett, it's best to define Huot's job as broadly as possible, and Simmons as narrowly, in order to support the company's claim that Simmons didn't get Huot's job.

      For Huot, he needs to define his job as narrowly as possible so it looks more like the job Simmons was given.

      To answer one of your questions, 8:30, yes, I've seen Gannett's motion for summary judgement.

      As to Huot's annual performance evaluations, I don't think he got one for 2011 -- the year he was laid off. I believe his two most recent evaluations were for 2009 and 2010. Gannett references both of those in its motion by name only. The evaluations themselves, including any ratings Garson gave Huot, are included in the sealed documents.

      Gannett's motion doesn't say whether the evaluations revealed any problems with Huot's performance. Indeed, the motion's only reference to written criticism involves e-mails where Garson voiced "some complaints about Huot's performance." But the motion doesn't detail the complaints.

      Bottom line: I don't see anything in Gannett's motion or Huot's response to indicate Corporate was having a significant problems with Huot's work performance. For that reason, it seems to me the third leg of the test still favors Huot.

  15. Am I the only journalist here who read that Huot earned nearly $300,000 a year and nearly choked? Gannett can't keep good reporters or editors because it pays them miserable wages, yet it pays a circulation director nearly $300,000 a year?

    1. Get a life - and stop being so arrogant. Circ people deserve what they get paid and I would bet that the Editor there made a lot more than he did.

    2. Even after Gannett chopped off nearly 20,000 jobs since 2006, there's still a very thick, fatty layer of upper-middle management within the company. These are the hundreds of jobs like Huot's, paying $200,000 to $300,000 a year.

      Remember, these are middle managers who've been the men and women choosing who gets laid off. The last ones they'll target will be each other; that's how they've survived so long.

      Gannett is only now going after them because the company has exhausted the possible savings at the lower end. The financial stakes are high, as Huot's case demonstrates, another reason why his lawsuit is so interesting.

    3. I'm not a reporter but the rule is "never put anything in writing you don't want held up in a court of law.” Kane is a marketing guy, apparently he didn't get the memo about sending out emails about someone you are going to fire. Yes, I too, have lost respect for him.

      Great reporting Jim. Keep us abreast to the situation.

  16. You can't trust performance evaluations written by Gannett management. In Cincinnati, the process is so flawed and subjective that any jury or judge would hand a vault of money to a plaintiff.
    Many hard-working people there have received completely bogus and unfair reviews by management who simply didn't like the person they were reviewing.

    1. I don't think it has to do with liking a person as much as it does wanting that person to leave so Gannett doesn't have to give them a severance package.


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