September 17th, 2009 | by JAMES PITKIN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Cops and Courts, CLEAN UP

JUICY SUITS: The O Gets Dragged to Court over Buyout Deal

The_Oregonian_building

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before The Oregonian got sued over which employees were allowed to take last year's buyout offers.

It was generous of the paper's New Jersey-based owners to offer two years' salary and benefits to most employees who had worked at the paper more than 10 years and agreed to walk away. Employees who had between five and 10 years' tenure were offered one year's salary and bennies.

But given the increasingly desperate state of the newspaper business, the sheer number of workers involved, and the paper's decision to extend the buyout to some employees but not to others, it comes as little surprise that some workers would feel burned watching colleagues floating away in a comfy raft while they were left behind on the ship.

Career Oregonian ad clerk James Bixler has become the first to file suit over the buyout, claiming he was wrongfully denied the offer and then later had his salary slashed.

In a lawsuit (PDF) filed this week in Multnomah County Circuit Court, Bixler alleges breach of contract, unlawful employment practice and negligent misrepresentation by the daily newspaper. The Sept. 14 lawsuit seeks his buyout benefits, plus unspecified "costs, fees and expenses."

According to the lawsuit, Bixler is a third-generation Oregonian employee whose family has served the paper since the 1930s. He was first hired as a paperboy in the 1970s, the lawsuit says. He became an ad clerk in 1981 and — except for a two-year break from 1985 to 1987 — has continued to work for the company up to the present time, the lawsuit says.

On Aug. 22, 2008, Oregonian publisher Fred Stickel circulated the buyout offer and gave empolyees 45 days — until Oct. 6 — to accept the offer. A copy of the buyout offer (PDF) is attached to the lawsuit.

The offer wasn't extended to all employees. Instead it came with an attached list of workers who were excluded from the offer, including "all salespeople with less than 25 years of service."

The paper's human-resources department told Bixler he had only 24.82 years of employment, the lawsuit says. Nonetheless, the lawsuit claims that Bixler's boss, now-former marketing manager Brad Harmon, told Bixler in an email attached to the lawsuit (PDF) that Bixler could take the buyout.

According to the lawsuit, an unnamed "agent" of The Oregonian later left a voicemail for Bixler saying he didn't qualify for the buyout after all. Harmon "convinced" Bixler to stop pursuing the buyout by telling Bixler his "pay and benefits continued to be secure," the lawsuit says.

Seven months later, on March 23 of this year, The O cut Bixler's pay by 10 percent and ceased accruing benefits to his retirement account, the lawsuit says.

The suit claims the buyout offer was expressly designed to deny Bixler its benefits by excluding sales staff with less than 25 years' experience. The suit also claims Bixler had more than 25 years of experience by Oct. 6, 2008 — the cutoff date for accepting the buyout.

Oregonian Editor Sandy Rowe's office referred questions about the lawsuit to managing editor Therese Bottomly. Bottomly refused to comment and also refused to forward a message to someone at the paper who would be willing to speak for this story.

The office of Mario van Dongen, The O's director of advertising and marketing, referred questions to publisher Fred Stickel. Stickel's assistant, Pam Perry, said Stickel would have no comment.
 
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