A former reporter for the now-defunct print edition of the Tucson Citizen has filed a civil lawsuit against Gannett Co., Inc. and Citizen Publishing, Co. for breach of contract.
The lawsuit for A.J. Flick, who worked for the Citizen for 15 years before its closure this spring, was filed in Pima County Superior Court late Monday night by Adam Watters, a local attorney specializing in employment law.
The specific dollar amount of damages sought by Flick isn’t specified in the complaint, but she said, “It’s less than what some Gannett executives pay for a round of golf,” referring to Robert Dickey, president of Gannett U.S. Community Publishing, paying somewhere between $12,500 and $25,000 in green fees at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic the day after delivering the news of the Citizen’s sale/closure to stunned reporters and editors.
Dickey told Citizen employees Jan. 15 that the paper was for sale and if it wasn’t sold by March 21, it would be closed. Employees were also given a written statement to that effect, which noted that employees would get one-week severance pay for each year they’d worked at the Citizen if they stayed employed through March 20.
Flick, who covered the courts beat during her final six years at the Citizen, claims Gannett broke its contract when, on March 17, it told Citizen employees that the paper would be open “day to day” because a buyer had surfaced and negotiations were “ongoing.”
“I had a vacation I had already planned and paid for at that time, so I went on that, and then when I got back, I met with my lawyer and our stance was, whatever Gannett asks people to do after the 20th is a new agreement,” Flick said. “We basically said to them I will come back to work for you indefinitely if you give me my severance now and pay me for the work I do until the paper closes. I had plans to move on after March 20. If they wanted me to work, we’d needed to strike a new agreement. They should have offered me a new contract, but no, they were forcing my hand, asking me to do something extra for them and then they would give me severance. But how would I know they would honor that contract?”
Flick and Watters engaged in a month-long letter exchange with Gannett officials while Flick was on unpaid leave, continuing to argue breach of contract. In mid-April, Flick was warned by interim editor Jennifer Boice that if she didn’t return to work she would be fired. Then, on April 27th, Flick received notice via certified mail that she was being fired.
“Mark (Evans) had called and said he needed to get my (Citizen) equipment from me and we were having lunch when the certified letter came from Jennifer,” Flick said. Evans was Flick’s direct editor at the time and is the current editor of TucsonCitizen.com, one of only two full-time employees on Gannett’s Tucson payroll.
In her lawsuit, Flick asks for the 15 weeks of severance she feels is due to her because of her 15 years at the Citizen, as well as the value of health benefits she would have received during that severance period, triple that amount in damages, and attorney and legal fees.
“Gannett told me on Jan. 15 of this year that it was putting the Tucson Citizen up for sale and if I were still employed on March 20 and the paper not sold by March 21, I would get one week of severance for every year of employment with all of my health benefits,” Flick said. “I was employed by the Citizen on March 20 and the paper was not sold. However, Gannett tacked on a 12th-hour requirement that employees needed to stay past March 20th, indefinitely, in order to collect severance, contrary to what we were told previously in person and in writing.
“I filed the lawsuit because I held up my end of the bargain and Gannett did not. The lawsuit basically says I relied on Gannett’s promises, to my detriment, and suffered financially.”
Representatives from Gannett were not immediately available to speak about the lawsuit this morning and Boice declined to comment, referring comment to Gannett corporate offices.
Flick, 48, is now pursuing freelance writing and legal research. During her Citizen tenure, she covered a number of sensational trials, including the James Allen Selby serial rapist trial (for which she appeared on an episode of A&E’s “Cold Case Files”) and the Bradley Schwartz and Ronald Bruce Bigger trials for the murder of Tucson eye doctor Brian Stidham.
Flick has won numerous awards, including two for the coverage of the Stidham murder and a second place in the Arizona Associated Press’s public safety reporting category for her story “Prison without bars,” which reported on the Tucson state prison’s Catalina Unit. In 2004, she was part of a team that won first place in Arizona AP’s deadline news reporting for covering a fatal hostage crisis that left three people, including the shooter, dead.
The Tucson Citizen printed its final edition May 16 and TucsonCitizen.com launched May 18.