For all its many shortcomings, the Riverside Press-Enterprise has a few things going for it. Its reporters can and occasionally do kick ass, as when they booted Rep. Gary Miller’s corrupt butt up and down the IE over his questionable land dealings. It’s cheaper than the L.A. Times, and, unlike the Times, it has a working opinion page. It’s got an easy-to-remember and alliterative nickname: The P.E.
And its website, www.pe.com, has a fairly extensive and well-maintained story archive. For example, type the word “discrimination” into the site’s search field, and up pop 131 results—archived P.E. stories in which discrimination played a central theme. You’ll find stories on discrimination against the “indigenous immigrants” of the Coachella Valley, baseball legend Jackie Robinson, black and Hispanic employees of FedEx, gays and lesbians, and dozens of other groups and individuals.
What you won’t find are any references to James Milbourne or Robert Barboza, two men for whom discrimination is front and center in their ongoing lawsuits—against the P.E.
This is unfortunate, because the allegations in their lawsuits are so compelling and so eminently newsworthy. Milbourne, who until May was publisher of the P.E.-owned Business Press newspaper, claims he was fired for having the bad sense to get sick with multiple sclerosis. Barboza, the P.E.’s former ad services director, says he was shown the door for having the even worse sense to be named as a potential plaintiff’s witness in Milbourne’s suit. But we’re just guessing.
Milbourne joined the P.E. in 1989 as a lowly advertising account executive, and over the years steadily rose through the ranks—from peon to manager of general advertising to director of national and major account advertising—before being tapped to run the Business Press in October 2005. A P.E. memo announcing Milbourne’s promotion spoke to his qualities as a leader:
“Jim’s experience, knowledge and standing in the local business community make him the ideal executive to bring renewed focus and energy to this very important and valuable product,” gushed Ronald Redfern, president and CEO of the Press-Enterprise Co.
That’s a lot of confidence to place in any employee, and particularly in an employee suffering from MS—a degenerative nerve disease that can cause, among other things, a loss of focus and energy. Milbourne, however, was no ordinary employee. He was diagnosed with the disease in 1995, but—despite a brief medical leave of absence in 1998—was able to continue to fulfill his job duties well enough to be promoted at least three times after diagnosis.
But the thing about MS, as any fan of The West Wing will tell you, is that it tends to flare up under conditions of stress. Milbourne says that up until 2000, he was able to keep his workload at 40 to 50 hours a week. Then he got a new boss—Vice President of Advertising Sue Barry—who, he says, increased his workload to the point that he was regularly working a grinding 65 to 70 hours a week. When his requests to Barry for a lighter workload went ignored, Milbourne went so far as to clip out newspaper articles about MS and give them to her in effort to educate her about the disease.
“However, nothing was changed regarding Mr. Milbourne’s working conditions,” writes Milbourne’s attorney, Vincent Calderone, in the lawsuit filed June 29. “Mr. Milbourne was required to work his grueling schedule for the next several years and no accommodations were made for his MS, which eventually took its toll on Mr. Milbourne’s health.”
The toll came in the form of an MS flare-up so debilitating that Milbourne had to take a five-month leave of absence, from January to May 2006. When he tried to return to work in May, he was told—again, according to the lawsuit—that his position was no longer available to him, leaving the father of three with no income and, more importantly, no medical insurance. In other words, the P.E. took a sick man, forced him to work hours that could kill a healthy man, and then threw him away when he got sicker. It’s the kind of black-hearted stuff that should make any seasoned court reporter salivate, and yet the P.E.—which rarely, if ever, reports on itself—apparently found nothing here worth writing about.
It’s also the kind of stuff that, if true, is forbidden under California labor law, which is why Milbourne is suing to get his job back, and a lot of unspecified damages to boot.
“My health was sacrificed for almost 17 years in making the Press-Enterprise profitable while being employed there, Milbourne tells the Weekly. “Now, due to not wanting to accommodate my disability, they kick me to the curb. I doin’t have a very warm feeling for the company and how I’ve seen them treat disabled people.”
Barboza joined the P.E. in 1999, prospered, and in May of last year was named the paper’s ad services director. According to his lawsuit against the paper, Barboza was considered an exemplary employee by management right up until January 9 and 10 of this year, when during a deposition Milbourne named him and several other people as potential witnesses in his case. Suddenly, Barboza wasn’t considered such an exemplary employee. On Jan. 12, Lois Hoyt, the P.E.’s director of human resources who just happened to have sat in on the deposition when Milbourne named names, called Barboza to the carpet. She wanted to know why he was listed as a member of a limited liability corporation formed by Milbourne, the lawsuit states. Four days later, Barboza responded with a statement that his father had invested money in two Fantastic Sam’s franchises Milbourne had recently opened in Arizona, and that he—Barboza—was overseeing that investment and “helping with some basic bookkeeping.”
According to the lawsuit, the P.E. responded by firing Barboza “due to a conflict of interest.” Barboza is now suing the paper for wrongful termination and retaliation.
Now, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, but for the life of us, we can’t figure out what Barboza’s conflict of interest could have been. Does the Riverside Press-Enterprise sell a lot of newspapers in Arizona? Could the P.E. really be getting enough ad revenue from Supercuts salons in Phoenix and Scottsdale to make the Fantastic Sam’s venture a financial threat? Or did Barboza’s role as a potential witness for Milbourne simply conflict with the P.E.’s interest in not being successfully sued?
A call by the Weekly to the law firm handling the P.E.’s defense produced this response:
“The Press-Enterprise does not tolerate discrimination or retaliation, and the lawsuits being brought by these individuals are merit-less,” Publisher Redfern said, or, rather, Cynthia Germano of the law firm of Best, Best and Krieger read from a prepared statement she attributed to Redfern. “We will continue to defend these claims vigorously.”
Of that, we have no doubt. The P.E. has become quite adept at handling lawsuits by former employees, having already defended itself against a discrimination lawsuit in 1999, a sexual harassment suit later that same year, and an age discrimination suit in 2002.
That first discrimination suit must have proved particularly educative, as it involved an advertising employee, Lana Joyce Fritzche, who claimed that her supervisor—Sue Barry—refused to make accommodations for her medical condition—MS—and that she was ultimately fired after taking a 30-day leave of absence due to an MS flare-up. The case was dismissed at the plaintiff’s request in 2001. Whether it was dismissed because of a settlement agreement or because Fritzche had a change of heart is not known. The sexual harassment and age-discrimination suits were also eventually dismissed.
For the record, not a word about these three earlier suits shows up in the P.E.’s online story archives, but to be fair, the archives might not go back that far.
Still, the question of why the P.E. has yet to report on Milbourne’s and Barboza’s lawsuits remains. A call to the paper’s newsroom resulted in 30 minutes of being kept on hold before a reporter, whom we won’t identify because it’s quite possible the call was routed to him by mistake, said he never heard of the lawsuits and that he wasn’t allowed to comment for the record. Calls to P.E. Managing Editor John Gryka have yet to be returned.
That the P.E. newsroom may have simply overlooked the discrimination lawsuits is, of course, a possibility. We at the Weekly certainly didn’t know about them until we received a tip last week, and the San Bernardino Sun newspaper has yet to cover them. But in fairness to us, the Weekly was two months old and had barely figured out how to work the phones when Milbourne filed his suit. And the Sun—well, it’s the Sun.
In any case, the editorial staff at the P.E. can’t say they never heard of the lawsuits now—we clued them in seven days ago when we called for comment. And, being the pathologically hopeful people that we are, we’re sure that the paper will get around to covering the story any day now.
Yep. Any day now.