By Ken Stone
Sandra Maas, the former news anchor suing KUSI, never met Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but the Supreme Court icon was on her mind this weekend — after overcoming a speed bump in her own pursuit of justice.
“Hail to the queen, ultimate trailblazer and relentless champion of women,” Maas said on Instagram.
On Friday — hours before Ginsburg’s death was announced — Judge Ronald Frazier in San Diego Superior Court denied KUSI’s demand that Maas pay the conservative station $106,000 in attorney fees.
In a 10-minute hearing, Frazier told lawyers for KUSI-owner McKinnon Broadcasting Co. that he respectfully disagreed with their arguments that an earlier ruling made them eligible to claim legal costs under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.
A successful SLAPP motion — which Rachel Maddow won against One America News, for example — is a way defendants can deter efforts to silence the press.
But it was the inverse here, Maas’ lawyer suggested.
“I think it was their attempt to bully Sandra, their attempt to scare her, to intimidate her. … Today was a big victory for Sandra,” Maas attorney Josh Gruenberg said Friday. “Even if someone files a frivolous motion against you, it’s a relief to win it.”
In June 2019 — 11 days after smiling through a surprise farewell on KUSI’s 10 p.m. newscast — Maas sued KUSI’s owner for $10 million, alleging her contract wasn’t renewed because she sought the same salary as her recently retired co-anchor, Allen Denton.
Thank you and farewell to all the KUSI viewers who have watched and supported me for the past 15 years. I’ll miss delivering the news to you. On to the next adventure… #KUSINews pic.twitter.com/PdgsGmEzJB
— Sandra Maas (@SandraMaas) June 17, 2019
In her final year, her contract shows, Maas made $180,000. That was a $20,000 raise from her previous salary — but still $70,000 less than Denton’s final salary of about $250,000. Maas says Denton, on his last day at work (Feb. 28, 2019), told her his pay.
Two years earlier, when she first learned that even less senior men made more than her, Maas began seeking a raise from her news director but was “given the runaround,” her lawsuit says.
In April 2018, she wrote a letter to management highlighting her 35-year broadcasting career and “more than a dozen Emmy nominations.” Maas said no reason existed that “my compensation should be less than multiple male counterparts at KUSI.”
She invoked the catchline of consumer reporter Michael Turko, her former colleague: “It ain’t right!”
Maas, now 57, also is suing for gender and age discrimination. KUSI lawyers and executives, who didn’t respond to requests for comment on Frazier’s ruling, deny all allegations.
But KUSI president and general manager Michael D. McKinnon Jr., news director Steve Cohen and Human Resources director Sally Luck implied in depositions that Maas didn’t deserve the same pay as Denton.
“It was brought to my attention that Ms. Maas had become distant, unengaged and uninterested in her job,” McKinnon told a deposition in December.
Even so, McKinnon said that in May 2018, he offered her a $20,000 raise and a three-year contract, “which would have kept her employed as a KUSI anchor through the summer of 2021.” He said Maas, then 55, accepted the raise but declined the three-year offer.
In any case, Cohen said that on May 17, 2019, he and Luck met with Maas to inform her that “MBC would permit her employment contract to expire.”
He said he told Maas that KUSI was “transitioning the way it reported the news from cold teleprompter reading to a more engaged, conversational broadcast style – a new generation of news broadcast.”
And based on his observations and professional judgment, Cohen said: “I did not believe Ms. Maas would have been effectively utilized in this changing style of broadcasting. Neither Ms. Maas’ age nor gender, nor any concern she may have raised about her pay, played any role in my recommendation regarding her employment.”
Luck, the HR director, also recalled the May 17, 2019, meeting.
“Steve Cohen and I met with Ms. Maas to inform her that MBC would permit her employment contract to expire,” Luck said in a declaration. “Neither Ms. Maas’ age, gender, nor salary were discussed at this meeting. … To my knowledge, Ms. Maas never requested that her expired one-year contract be renewed.”
Gruenberg, a San Diego-based attorney for Maas, says he and his client are happy that what they saw as KUSI delaying tactics have been overcome.
“Now we’re moving on to the merits of the case,” he said. “We plan to take Allen Denton’s deposition, who [sat] next to her for many years. We have a feeling we know what he’s going to say about whether he saw Sandra as an equal.”
He called Maas’ lesser salary “the most egregious violation of the Equal Pay Act that I ever have seen. … I think in the end … it’s going to show how blatant employers can be with regard to paying women less than men for essentially performing the same job functions.”
He also noted his amended suit’s age-discrimination element.
“The reality is that women newscasters have a much shorter shelf life than male newscasters,” Gruenberg said in a phone interview. “That’s something we’re trying to eradicate in the business. And hopefully the case will serve as a deterrent to stations that start firing women as they hit their early or mid-50s.”
Next steps in the civil case include more depositions, exchange of documents and corralling of witnesses. But Gruenberg doubts the current scheduled trial date of April 30, 2021, is plausible.
Noting a backlog of thousands of prioritized criminal cases with jailed inmates awaiting trial, as well as people seeking restraining orders, “I would consider myself fortunate to try any civil case in 2021.”
Meanwhile, he says Maas is looking for another newscaster job. (In fact, even before being let go, she wrote the rival CBS affiliate’s president and general manager: “checking in to see if there are any upcoming anchor opportunities at KFMB.”)
“She would love to become re-employed,” Gruenberg said. “She’s looking for a job, but she has not found a job as an anchor.”
Even though the original $10 million demand language has been dropped from the case, “the lawyers still stand by that value,” Gruenberg said Monday.
In the meantime, Maas hosts Trailblazing Women, a video series for the Women’s Museum of California, where she lists herself as vice president of external affairs. She continues making speaking appearances.
A week before her final newscast at KUSI, Maas told Times of San Diego, she had a “very meaningful conversation” with Ernest Rady at the “Entrepreneur of the Year Awards” at The Fairmont Grand Del Mar. (Maas emceed the event for founder Ernst & Young.)
“I told [Rady] about my impending departure from the station and he encouraged me to watch the RBG documentary to learn more about her fight for women’s rights and equal pay,” she said. “That was a turning point for me.”
She said learning Ginsburg’s life story and witnessing her strength and determination gave her the courage to fight back as well.
“Silently moving on was no longer an option,” Maas said.
Her dream for the case?
“I’m hoping to ultimately make a difference for women in the workplace,” she said. “And I’m starting by sharing my own story.”
Other key documents in case
May 29, 2018: KUSI three-year contract offer to Sandra Maas
Aug. 23, 2019: Declaration of KUSI News Director Steve Cohen
Aug. 23, 2019: Declaration of KUSI Human Resources director Sally Luck
Aug. 26, 2019: McKinnon Broadcasting memo in support of motion to strike
Jan. 14, 2020: Deposition of KUSI News Director Steve Cohen
Feb. 23, 2020: Sandra Maas declaration against KUSI anti-SLAPP motion
March 16: 2020: Notice of judge’s order in Sandra Maas v. McKinnon Broadcasting
July 17, 2020: Sandra Maas opposition to KUSI anti-SLAPP attorney fees
Aug. 11, 2020: Proposed stipulated protective order for confidentiality
Sept. 11, 2020: Transcript of March 13, 2020, hearing on Maas case
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