ZoomerMedia Ltd., the mini-media empire of Toronto television entrepreneur Moses Znaimer, is facing a lawsuit from the former chief executive officer of its religious specialty channel, Vision TV, who is demanding more than $900,000 in severance and damages for "mental and emotional distress."
Bill Roberts, now 61, had been at the helm of Vision for a decade when ZoomerMedia bought it in 2010 for $25-million from the charity that owned it. He says in court documents that after initially being asked to stay on with a salary of about $250,000 a year, the two sides couldn't agree on new terms and he was terminated in 2012.
But when he was let go, he alleges, ZoomerMedia still owed him two years' pay in severance and a paid six-month sabbatical – provisions he says the company agreed to when it took over his contract at Vision.
Mr. Roberts, an industry veteran who previously served as managing director of TV Ontario, also alleges that after he was told he was being terminated by ZoomerMedia in March, 2012, he had to stay on during a "working notice" period until October. But during this period, he alleges, he was required to provide a "weekly written report" on his activities, assigned an office away from other staff and excluded from aspects of the television operation.
This "misconduct," Mr. Roberts alleges in his lawsuit, "has caused significant mental and emotional distress" and a "deterioration in his physical health, which has resulted in [Mr. Roberts] having to seek medical attention."
In an interview, Mr. Roberts was reluctant to go into further detail, but said he found the experience "startling" after his career in broadcasting, and highly stressful. "I felt like I was being left to twist in the wind."
Mr. Znaimer's move to buy Vision four years ago raised eyebrows: The founder of Toronto's once-irreverent CITY-TV – known in its early days for its titillating late-night programming – got his hands on a sober specialty channel dedicated to faith and spirituality.
A spokeswoman for ZoomerMedia, Leanne Wright, declined to comment on the lawsuit as it is before the courts.
In his statement of claim, filed in 2012, Mr. Roberts is asking for $490,000 in severance, $150,000 in lieu of the sabbatical, $100,000 in "bad faith damages," $100,000 in "aggravated damages" and $100,000 for "the intentional infliction of mental distress or punitive damages."
Around August, 2011, Mr. Roberts says he met with Mr. Znaimer to discuss the terms of extending his employment past his contract's October 2011 expiry date. In court documents, Mr. Roberts says he had his lawyer draw up a proposal to carry on, but that ZoomerMedia balked at paying for the sabbatical. By January, 2012, Mr. Roberts' lawyer was threatening to sue.
Mr. Roberts alleges that, at a private meeting, Mr. Znaimer urged him not to sue, saying ZoomerMedia "was in the midst of some financial issues which would be adversely impacted."
The two sides are due in court again in October, when a lawyer for ZoomerMedia is seeking to strike out parts of Mr. Roberts' statement of claim that refer to settlement talks – talks that ZoomerMedia argues should have been kept confidential.
ZoomerMedia, which, besides Vision TV, operates three other specialty channels, three radio stations and Zoomer Magazine, says it serves the "45-plus Zoomer demographic." In recently released financial results, it says it lost $2.44-million in its first quarter of this year, and brought in $13.26-million in revenue.
The company is controlled by Mr. Znaimer's Olympus Management Ltd., which owns 64.3 per cent of the common shares. Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. owns 26.9 per cent, with 9 per cent of shares widely held.