Pamela Vallero, Josh Gruenberg and Ken Fitzgerald are relaxed before making concluding arguments
Lawyers Pamela Vallero, Josh Gruenberg and Ken Fitzgerald are relaxed before closing arguments. Photo by Ken Stone

In his closing argument Wednesday, an attorney for veteran San Diego news anchor Sandra Maas in her pay-equity case didn’t mention it was International Women’s Day.

But the lawyer, Josh Gruenberg, made a pitch he hoped would resonate with the six female jurors — two of them Black — and any sympathetic men.

The case is relevant not just to Maas, he said, “but to women who suffer pay disparity all over this country.” And it “screams out for punitive damages.”

Josh Pang, another Maas lawyer, sounded a similar feminist theme in his rebuttal to KUSI’s own hour-long closing argument.

Sandra Maas preps for jury.
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He urged jurors to see the definitions of malice and oppression and check the punitive damages box to “punish them for what they have done to Sandra Maas and other women in the community.”

The jury began deliberations but ended the day with no decision on whether the conservative Kearny Mesa station was guilty of violating the state Equal Pay Act (when it paid Maas, 60, as much as $90,000 a year less than her male co-anchor for nine-plus years) or gender/age bias and whistleblower retaliation laws.

On Day 12 of a trial that began Valentine’s Day, KUSI attorney Ken Fitzgerald echoed his first words: Experience matters.

“When I got ready to do my opening statement about four weeks ago, I gave serious thought to saying just that and sitting down,” he said, asserting that was enough to prove her Equal Pay Act claim lacked merit.

Judge Ronald Frazier spent 50 minutes at the start reading standard and special jury instructions — some not finalized until 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. Wednesday. He noted how civil juries aren’t held to the same “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard as criminal cases.

Claims can be judged “more likely to be true than not true.”

But Fitzgerald took pains to note that the law does not simply require equal pay for equal work.

It requires equal pay when there is equal merit, he argued, and he began a slide-show presentation on how the older Denton had more years as a full-time anchor.

“He was the more accomplished journalist. He was the more talented anchor in the judgment of KUSI’s news director.” And Denton, now a 70-year-old Florida retiree, worked harder, Fitzgerald said.

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He said KUSI showed that the pay differential — $245,000 to $180,000 when Maas’ contract wasn’t renewed in June 2019 — was based on acceptable factors including accomplishments, talent, work ethic and attitude.

Fitzgerald said market forces also helped determine the primetime anchors’ pay.

“The market has spoken,” he said. “The market has validated their talent,” likening Denton’s pay advantage to the 11-year, $350 million deal signed by Padres star Manny Machado.

“The market had valued Allen Denton very high,” Fitzgerald said. “The market did not value Sandra Maas as highly as she values herself.”

In fact, Fitzgerald said, KUSI paid its female star more than her partner when prorated over their 48- and 32-year careers, figuring that by 2019 Maas made $5,625 a year to Denton’s $5,104.

He also echoed previous arguments that Maas’ style wasn’t suited to a new format at KUSI — the less scripted “Good Evening San Diego.”

“Lester Holt would not fit well on ‘The View,’ and Whoopi Goldberg wouldn’t be so good on the ‘CBS Evening News,'” Fitzgerald said.

Shaquille O’Neal was not the best 3-point shooter, he added, noting: “His game was to park himself down in the low post and overpower people and dunk the ball.”

In their own remarks, Gruenberg and Pang sought to dunk on Fitzgerald.

Sandra Maas lawyer Josh Pang points to desired damages awards totaling over $8 million. Photo by Ken Stone

Citing earlier depositions, they made a case that KUSI didn’t adopt the “experience matters” mantra until years after the lawsuit was filed in late June 2019. (But they didn’t mention a complete change in KUSI’s legal team.)

“The reality is what you’ve heard in this case is an after-the-fact rationale,” Gruenberg said, noting that KUSI “decision-makers” couldn’t tell Maas and Denton’s length of broadcast experience during depositions.

“How does the president of a corporation claim three years later to base pay on experience yet not know what his anchors’ experience is” he said, referring to Mike McKinnon Jr., son of the station’s founder (who attended the trial daily).

And the Machado analogy?

Pang said KUSI’s salary system is “not exactly the free market. This is not Manny Machado versus other players.”

Unlike ballplayers, he said, KUSI staff don’t know their market value because the station hides data via “complete pay secrecy.”

Pang said the only thing KUSI managers were concerned about after Maas emailed her April 30, 2018, request for wages near Denton’s was: “How did you find out that information?”

Using market forces to justify disparate pay is “a smokescreen,” Pang said, “because really they have no bargaining [power] with the company. If they don’t know what the other people are making, they can’t determine what their actual value is.”

KUSI’s Fitzgerald displayed quotes, showed clips and recalled current and former employees’ testimony in an effort to depict Maas as critical of the station and unhappy in her job.

But Gruenberg called them “carefully crafted” and declared: “Frankly, these witnesses have not been truthful. How do we know that? Because I took their depositions.”

He said they changed their stories on the witness stand to be more dismissive of Maas, “and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. … That oath is supposed to mean something.”

Fitzgerald contrasted the former co-anchors in other ways.

Denton’s “got this sort of charming gravitas about him,” he told the jury — five wearing facial masks. “He seems intelligent … and seems totally relaxed. And most importantly, he seems very authentic.”

He labeled Maas inauthentic.

“Look at how different she is before the camera starts rolling, before the director says action,” Fitzgerald said. “And then look at how she lights up and becomes energetic. When the camera’s rolling, she’s a different person.”

He called her “a strong person” but different “depending on the situation.”

Maas lawyer Pang later responded: “These are very clearly stereotypes that they’re playing off of to make you all feel something that wasn’t actually true.”

Curiously, KUSI barely dealt with “comparators” — other male anchors whose pay was divulged in a courtroom closed to the press and public. Jurors saw “Male A and B” and “Female A, B and C” in a chart where they had the codes.

In his close, Gruenberg said the jury hears about gender discrimination, equal pay and retaliation in headlines. But unsaid and unseen, he contended, is how deeply rooted such problems are in U.S. corporations — and at KUSI.

“They remain woven into the fabric of their culture, and … these systemic inequalities are silenced,” Gruenberg said. “This is just one of many cases … that typically go unheard and unaddressed.”

With every seat in the spectator gallery filled — including by Maas’ son, daughter and the daughter’s fiancé — Judge Frazier allowed as many as 13 people to sit or stand in the entrance aisle.

Moments before jurors filed in, Frazier said: “I want to let the parties know you’ve been extremely well-represented.”