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State Supreme Court Rejects News-Press Appeal in Jerry Roberts Case

Arbitrator's decision awarding attorneys fees and costs means the former editor is owed about $1 million, according to his attorney

A long-running legal dispute between the owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press and former editor Jerry Roberts apparently has come to an end.

The California Supreme Court this week declined to review a lower court decision upholding an arbitrator’s ruling in the case, according to Herb Fox, Roberts’ attorney.

“This is a great day for journalism,” Roberts said Wednesday. “Professionally, it’s extremely gratifying to receive this final vindication in a fight for journalistic ethics, alongside many colleagues who sacrificed jobs, careers and more on behalf of principle.

“On a personal level, my family and I couldn’t be more pleased that California’s highest court, like every other trier of fact in the matter, found no merit in the baseless case brought against me.”

In July 2006, Ampersand Publishing LLC, which owns the News-Press, filed a $25 million arbitration claim against Roberts, alleging defamation, breach of confidentiality and breach of fiduciary responsibility, among other claims.

Roberts filed a counter claim, alleging breach of contract terms, defamation and other charges.

The dispute stemmed from what is known around Santa Barbara as the “News-Press meltdown.”

Roberts and several other News-Press journalists quit their jobs in protest in the summer of 2006, claiming that Wendy McCaw, the sole owner of Ampersand Publishing, was violating journalistic ethics by unduly meddling in newsroom operations and decisions. They cited several examples of what they termed unethical behavior.

McCaw countered that the journalists were biased in their reporting and editing, and trying to usurp her rights as owner and publisher of the newspaper, which she purchased from The New York Times in 2000.

In filing the complaint, Ampersand and McCaw blamed Roberts for the bad publicity and ill effects the publication suffered in the wake of the highly public dispute, according to Fox.

In the fall of 2008, the arbitrator in the case denied the claims by both Ampersand and Roberts, but ruled that Roberts was the “prevailing party,” and awarded him $629,643 in attorneys fees, $93,058 in costs, and reimbursement of $25,320 in arbitration fees.

The case then moved into the courts, where Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge James Brown ruled against Ampersand in February 2009.

Ampersand appealed that ruling to the state’s Second District Court of Appeal, which upheld the lower court decision and the award of fees and costs to Roberts in March 2011.

The Supreme Court rejected Ampersand’s final appeal on Monday, Fox said.

“The final nail’s been hammered in the coffin,” Fox said Wednesday. “It’s over.”

With interest, the award to Roberts now totals about $1 million, Fox said.

When asked whether any further litigation on the matter is possible, Fox said it’s theoretically possible Ampersand could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, “but there are no federal or constitutional issues in the case.”

Ampersand attorney Framroze Virgee with O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles would not comment on the decision and referred questions to the News-Press.

Don Katich, director of news operations for the paper, did not return a call seeking comment.

When asked how Roberts will collect the money he’s owed, Fox said, “We’ll start by asking nicely.”

Beyond that, he said, there are “legal mechanisms” for collecting, but he would not elaborate.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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