In a lighter moment, Sandra Maas laughs alongiside attorneys Pamela Vallero and Josh Pang. Photo by Ken Stone
Plaintiff Sandra Maas laughs alongside attorneys Pamela Vallero and Josh Pang in court Monday. Photo by Ken Stone

When her earpiece screeched from feedback, did Sandra Maas unprofessionally desert the set and her KUSI-TV newscasts one spring night in 2019?

Did longtime anchor Maas blame production staff for her Mercedes being keyed?

Was Maas so regularly late to the newsroom to do promos or “news breaks” that co-workers termed her rush the “Sandra Sprint”?

Depends on who you ask.

On Day 10 of her trial seeking pay-equity damages from her 15-year employer, Maas listened Monday to a series of current or former KUSI employees describe her as a disgruntled diva who failed to work as hard as her male co-anchor Allen Denton.

But her legal team fought back, grilling ex-news writer and producer Jason “Jay” Brown, weatherman Mark Mathis, senior engineer Daniel Brunning and operations manager Vincent Douglas during sometimes angry cross examination in downtown Superior Court.

The jury ended the day with no alternates left after a juror informed Judge Ronald Frazier his wife had just headed to the hospital to bear their first child. He was excused from the case.

That left a panel of six men and six women — and no room for any more exits to guarantee verdicts in the nearly 4-year-old case. (Under state law, a civil jury with 11 jurors is allowed as long as both sides say OK.)

Trial’s end was in sight, though, with closing arguments set for Wednesday morning.

KUSI’s legal team, continuing its defense in the case that also alleges gender/age discrimination and illegal retaliation, called Brown to the stand first.

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Now a producer at UCSD-TV, Brown told the court about incidents during his 5-year KUSI tenure ending in July 2021.

“It was kind of hilarious,” Brown said of seeing Maas, late for her live or taped shots, running in high heels. But production crew sometimes had to scramble to find replacements, he said.

Co-anchor Denton was asked to step in when Maas was late, he added.

Brown also said he saw Maas shopping on Amazon between newscasts, and her attitude “seemed she didn’t want to be there all the time … didn’t like being at work.” She used expletives at work, he told the court.

In April 2019, Brown said, Maas had a feedback problem with her earpiece, called an IFB (for interruptible foldback). She walked off the 5 p.m. newscast and didn’t return that night — something Brown said he’d never seen.

But Maas lawyer Pamela Vallero described Maas as having experienced “acute pain” in her ear — and left the newscast only after telling the control room and news director Steve Cohen of her medical issue.

‘Not Highest Priority’

Vallero asked Brown if he later checked on Maas’ condition.

He said: “Miss Maas’ condition was not the highest on my priority list” while overseeing the night’s news shows. Brown added that Cohen reported Maas was having problems with her ear and couldn’t come back that night.

Brown said he couldn’t recall any injury report, or what she did about the ear, telling the court: “I wouldn’t because I’m not her.”

Vallero asserted that Brown never texted, emailed or sent a memo to management about Maas being late for news breaks, and Brown replied: “That would be correct.”

He said he didn’t report her for looking at her personal phone on the job, and Vallero argued that Denton would check his stocks on the set.

Did Brown have a friendly relationship with Maas? Vallero asked.

“Yes, she was nice to me,” he said. “She was kind to everyone … when things were going well” and once gave him a gift of clothing for his child.

When Brown was asked if Allen Denton were being untruthful when he testified he observed Maas mentoring younger staff, Brown replied: “yes.”

The jury was let go for lunch. But before the lawyers joined them, KUSI counsel Ken Fitzgerald again complained about Maas and her lawyer Josh Gruenberg being “quite demonstrative.” Fitzgerald asked the judge to advise the jury “not to consider” their body language.

Gruenberg erupted.

“Nobody in this courtroom is smirking more that this one,” he fairly yelled, referring to Fitzgerald and saying he saw him leaning back with a smile.

After lunch, Brown returned to the stand for more questioning from both sides.

Having said he’d like to continue working at UC San Diego for 20 years and eventually collect a pension, Maas attorney Vallero asked if he’d ever return “in a heartbeat” to KUSI amid an offer of more money.

“I would consider it,” Brown said — “if I had the option to grow” such as becoming a news director.

Brown also said he supported the Maas suit at first “without knowing all the facts.” Vallero alleged that his “gut reaction” was “You go, girl.”

Long Mathis Pause

Weatherman Mathis came next. The 33-year broadcast veteran who came to KUSI in 2014 said he observed Maas “looking at Amazon” on her phone and showing him info on Mexican vacation spots and a Temecula winery.

Mathis said Maas arrived at the station at 4:45 p.m. and left after the 6 p.m. show, taking till 9:30 or 9:45 p.m. to return from dinner.

But under cross examination, Mathis said variations of “I don’t know” about whether Maas had missed any promo tapings.

“So you don’t know whether she was late or not” Gruenberg said.

After a long pause, Mathis said: “She was late.”

KUSI weather man Mark Mathis on the stand. Photo by Ken Stone

He said he once saw a female co-worker ask Maas: “Would you at least fake that you care” about work?

Judge Frazier told the jury to disregard that statement.

Mathis alleged a similar conversation while both were putting on their makeup.

“Could you act like you care?” he recalled saying.

“No, because I don’t,” she allegedly told him.

Mathis said Maas “suspected everyone” for keying her car, raising production crew concerns they were being accused.

“I remember her talking about it quite a bit,” he said.

And Mathis alleged that former assistant news director Lisa Burger once said of Maas on an election night: “Someone needs to go up there and tell Sandra Maas who the presidential candidates are.”

The next witness was Daniel Brunning, KUSI’s senior engineer. He described a database called an ENPS — an electronic news production system that tracked when and how often talent was on air — and how often they did “edits” on scripts.

Brunning said he pulled comparison data from the 9-plus years Maas co-anchored with Denton and found he did edits 12,335 times compared with 5,767 times for Maas.

But when Gruenberg offered examples of when air time for one shift was also credited to another — or contradicted by the timecard system — he asked Brunning whether the ENPS could be inaccurate.

“Define inaccurate,” the ponytailed engineer said.

“Not true,” Gruenberg replied.

Maas Called ‘Diva-Like’

Next to be sworn in was Vincent “Vince” Douglas, a KUSI employee since 1993.

Douglas, the operations manager, said Maas was “moody” on occasion. “She would sometimes come off as diva-like” and seemed “agitated” and rushed a lot.

Younger staffers were “walking on eggshells around her” during the keyed-car affair, he said. Douglas said he put up new security cameras in the wake of the defacing incident, but “we never caught anyone.”

The ear-splitting earpiece?

Douglas said it was a replacement for one that wasn’t working, but blamed Maas for not testing the volume before she went on air. She had 3 minutes and 40 seconds to do the check, “an eternity in broadcasting,” he said.

(Gruenberg later said Maas suffered a swollen eardrum and sought medical attention.)

On cross, Gruenberg asked Douglas if he recalled telling Maas on her last day in June 2019 that “it was a pleasure to work with you.”

Douglas replied: “Also a pain in the butt to work with her,” saying it seemed she was unprepared at times. “It was serious enough for guys to complain” on how to deal with it.

Did Douglas ever elevate the complaints to HR director Sally Luck or station general manager Mike McKinnon Jr.?

“No,” Douglas said.

Did Douglas recall the names of anyone who complained about Maas?

“I do not have the names,” said Douglas, who also confirmed that he was being represented by a lawyer.

Before the jury reported for work at 10:44 a.m., both sides wrangled over proposed wording of instructions Frazier would give the jury on the law involved in the case.

Many items received consent from both teams, but one knotty issue remained: What to tell the jury about how the Equal Pay Act changed over the years.

Maas lawyer Josh Pang and KUSI counsel Caitlin Macker debated whether the state law was informed by federal law — which since 1974 has said prior salary history can’t be used to excuse unequal pay under certain conditions. (Denton made a lot more than Maas coming into KUSI).

Macker said years existed when the state statute didn’t bar use of prior salaries in deciding such cases. It now prohibits employers from relying on an employee’s prior pay to justify sex-, race-, or ethnicity- based wage disparities.

“I’ve never had this complex an issue for a jury to interpret,” Judge Frazier said.

Later, Frazier said “it’s a mess” that the current Equal Pay Act, amended in recent years, can’t be applied for retroactive Maas pay dating to 2010.

He suggested some kind of “neutral language.”

“We have to educate the jury,” Frazier added but might not decide until Tuesday on how to do this.

But Frazier was certain of one thing.

Talking “off the record” to the lawyers (and not the jury), Frazier encouraged them to see the Lamb’s Players Theatre production in Coronado of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” about 1960s female singers.

His verdict: “It’s outstanding.”