The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday that the $2 million sanction imposed against Ampersand Publishing — the parent company of the Santa Barbara News-Press — stands, after concluding that the “employer engaged in unusually aggravated misconduct.” The federal appeals court found that the National Labor Relations Board had acted within its legal discretion when ruling that Ampersand had engaged in unfair labor practices by refusing to bargain with the union selected by News-Press employees in September 2006.
In 2019, an administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that the News-Press owners and management team “engaged in willful defiance of its statutory obligations.” The judge also found the violations to be “so broad and numerous” as to warrant no less than 17 paragraphs in the cease-and-desist order.
Of the $2 million in sanctions imposed by NLRB — and affirmed by the appeals court — was $111,000 to cover all union bargaining expenses, including the attorney fees of Ira Gottleib, the attorney representing the Teamsters Union in negotiations with the News-Press. Costs for attorney fees for representation during negotiations are rarely awarded. The bargaining expenses will all be ordered paid to the union.
In this case, the News-Press unilaterally discontinued merit pay increases, unilaterally transferred the work typically assigned to members of the bargaining unit to non-bargaining unit employees, generally bargained in bad faith, and fired two employees, Dennis Moran and Richard Mineards, behavior the Ninth Circuit characterized as “unusually aggravated conduct sufficient to warrant more than a traditional remedy.” In addition to the $111,000 awarded to cover union bargaining expenses, the News-Press has been ordered to pay Mineards $550,000 and Moran $156,000. The News-Press had argued these awards were excessive because neither Mineards nor Moran tried hard enough to find new work after having been fired.
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The News-Press was also ordered to pay back merit pay to 31 employees to the tune of $221,000. The 40 employees who lost work because management transferred their duties to non-union employees are due $936,000.
The controversy dates back to 2006, six years after Wendy McCaw bought Santa Barbara’s daily newspaper. In 2006, News-Press employees voted to affiliate with the Teamsters union in response to disciplinary actions visited upon then-reporter Camilla Cohee (now Barnwell) for identifying actor Rob Lowe as the target of a land use dispute then playing out in Montecito and the county’s design review boards. Even though Lowe testified in person, McCaw found fault with Barnwell’s decision to list Lowe’s name and address, and she said so in Cohee’s personnel file. McCaw also found fault with two editors who oversaw the story.
At that time, there was no policy against naming high profile combatants in land use disputes nor the address of the property under contention. From this dispute, the News-Press soon found itself embroiled in a major labor controversy that saw the wholesale resignation of many reporters and editors. McCaw soon found herself and her paper the focus of a community-wide boycott action and widespread civic repudiation from which the News-Press has yet to recover.
The litigation with the National Labor Relations Board is just one of countless shoes to drop in the years of acrimony since. Few involved believe the matter will be settled by the Ninth Circuit’s ruling or that any of the beneficiaries of the decision are at risk of being paid off anytime soon.
CORRECTION: The $111,000 ordered to be paid to the union was for all union bargaining expenses, not just attorney’s fees associated with the bargaining.