Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Former Missoulian editor sues publisher, company

Posted By on Tue, Feb 23, 2016 at 6:29 PM

Former Missoulian editor Sherry Devlin is suing the newspaper’s publisher and parent company, Lee Enterprises, for wrongful discharge related to her resignation last fall.

Devlin filed a civil suit Feb. 19 in Missoula County District Court, alleging publisher Mark Heintzelman unfairly demoted her once he took control of the paper, cut her pay in half, and then filled the editor position with a younger, less qualified male.

Neither party immediately responded to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Devlin worked in the Missoulian newsroom for 30 years and served as editor from 2005 to 2015. She was first hired by the company in 1979, left three years later for stints at The Associated Press and the Spokesman-Review, and returned to the Missoulian in 1988.

Devlin performed her job well throughout her tenure, but things changed as soon as the Missoulian’s new publisher was hired in September 2014, the complaint argues.

Within days of being named publisher, Heintzelman spoke with Devlin about creating an “exit strategy” as editor, the complaint states. Devlin replied that she wished to remain in the position and was willing to do whatever he requested.

Two weeks later, in October 2014, Heintzelman informed Devlin by email that he was “on the fence” about keeping her as editor, the complaint states. Despite Devlin’s willingness to work, Heintzelman wrote, “I need an editor who has to be pulled back versus pushed.” Devlin asked for specific feedback on her job performance and suggested they set up weekly meetings to discuss it. The conversation ended there, according to the complaint.

Then, in April 2015, Devlin was told her employment as editor was being terminated, and the paper began advertising the position. In August, when new editor Matthew Bunk was hired, Devlin was demoted to a different position, the complaint states. The complaint describes Bunk as “much younger and much less qualified” for the job.

Bunk was the publisher and editor of a weekly newspaper in Libby before he was hired to lead the Missoulian newsroom. He is also the current president of the Montana Newspaper Association.

click to enlarge Longtime Missoulian editor Sherry Devlin is suing her former company, claiming the paper's new publisher demoted her from the position in 2015 without good cause. She resigned on Nov. 30. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Longtime Missoulian editor Sherry Devlin is suing her former company, claiming the paper's new publisher demoted her from the position in 2015 without good cause. She resigned on Nov. 30.

Devlin remained on staff as an associate editor, according to a Missoulian announcement from the time. However, the complaint indicates her pay was reduced by half. When she resigned on Nov. 30, the paper published a lengthy “thank you” column by Devlin to the community, which stated she was “honored” and “proud” of the work the newsroom had done over the prior three decades.

“Our newsroom has been courageous in shining a light on those who violate the public trust, undaunted in exploring this crazy big state of ours, and joyous in sharing the successes of our neighbors,” she wrote.

From the time Heintzelman was hired until her resignation, Devlin alleges that her workplace was “permeated with harassing and/or discriminatory intimidation that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [her] employment and create an abusive working environment.” The complaint argues Heintzelman himself is liable for creating a hostile work environment.

Additionally, Devlin is seeking damages for unpaid wages during her time as editor and associate editor. The complaint states Devlin was never paid overtime, despite working more than 40 hours each week in her demoted role and around 70 hours each week as editor, neither of which were exempt from state and federal overtime wage laws.

Devlin’s isn’t the first piece of litigation involving Heintzelman and former Missoulian employees. The company filed a civil lawsuit in May 2015 against Heintzelman predecessor Jim McGowan and four advertising employees. The pending suit accuses the employees of conspiring to steal proprietary information before leaving the paper to launch rival marketing and advertising agencies.

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