Sandra Maas reached to hug lawyer Josh Gruenberg as fellow attorneys Pam Vallero and Josh Pang
Sandra Maas reached to hug lawyer Josh Gruenberg as fellow attorneys Pam Vallero and Josh Pang look on. Photo by Ken Stone

KUSI-TV general manager Mike McKinnon Jr. glared at Sandra Maas, his former primetime anchor, throughout their four-week civil trial, one juror said.

Another marveled that KUSI had a dozen bloopers of Maas but none of her former co-anchor Allen Denton, saying: “You’re trying to tell me he didn’t have any flubs at all?”

And the presiding juror — or foreperson — said the panel discussed how some KUSI witnesses changed “perspective” between their depositions and trial testimony.

Feeling vindicated despite losing one claim — and being awarded far less money than sought — Maas was delighted Thursday to win her equal-pay case against McKinnon Broadcasting Co. nearly four years after filing suit.

She learned the verdicts on the road while viewing a video hookup to Judge Ronald Frazier’s fourth-floor Hall of Justice courtroom — arriving at downtown Superior Court after the six-man, six-woman jury was dismissed.

“My husband was driving me to the courthouse in his Jeep,” Maas told Times of San Diego.

“I’m relieved this years-long fight is coming to an end,” she said, “grateful to the jury for a landmark victory upholding the California Equal Pay Act and gratified to expose McKinnon Broadcasting Company’s shameful employment practices that will hopefully lead to change at KUSI.”

In two 10-2 votes, Maas, 60, was awarded nearly $1.3 million in lost past and future wages, plus $200,000 for her equal pay claim and $80,000 for emotional distress.

No punitive damages were awarded, since jurors found the conservative outlet didn’t commit fraud, malice or oppression. It was a major test of the state’s Equal Pay Act. By a 10-2 no vote, she failed to win her claim of gender/age discrimination.

KUSI attorney Ken Fitzgerald told the Kearny Mesa station’s “Good Evening San Diego” show that the verdicts would be appealed, citing “irregularities in the trial.”

Fitzgerald said Maas wanted $7.9 million in damages, so her $1.575 million award was “a fraction of what she was after.”

But KUSI’s bill could balloon by $5 million to pay attorneys fees, reported CBS8, where Maas once worked.

‘Men and Women Won’

“I was prepared for anything today,” Maas told reporters after reaching the courthouse. “It was worth it, and I would do it all over again. … I wanted to win, and I won today. And other women — and men — won today as well.”

Josh Pang, one of her three lawyers, said the team was thrilled that Maas was “vindicated for the discriminatory pay practices that she’s had to endure and the retaliation and the hard fight that she’d had to fight over the last few years.”

Minutes before Maas arrived for an ecstatic group hug with the Gruenberg Law trio, Pang said he couldn’t wait to speak with her. 

Juror Danna Adair, 61, lives downtown and had no trouble getting to the courthouse on Broadway. But she had trouble with a male juror — one of the pair who voted no to two approved claims.

Adair, who works concessions at Petco Park, said he cracked inappropriate jokes and wasn’t as serious as need be. The juror who sided with him as dissenters in the 10-2 votes was one of two lawyers on the panel.

“I was for every single vote,” she said — meaning she wanted KUSI punished on every claim.

Andrew Perez of University Heights, a 35-year-old marketing man, was chosen the jury’s foreperson.

He said the jury didn’t take an initial vote.

“We actually wrote out the law and we talked about each of the criteria,” Perez said on Day 13 of the trial. “We wanted to be thoughtful on how we went about deliberation.”

He said Maas and Denton’s duties as co-anchors were substantially similar — a key factor in deciding an Equal Pay Act case.

“And in the testimony that we heard,” he said, “it was really hard to reconcile some of the subjectivity that was at play in terms of, like: How do we assess talent? And how does McKinnon Broadcasting Co. determine how much someone should be paid?”

Without a system of metrics, he said, “it’s really hard — not being in that industry — to understand what pay would be. That’s what we spent a lot of time discussing.”

Differing Perspectives

The 10-2 splits stayed consistent, Perez said, but unlike a criminal case, the verdicts needn’t be unanimous.  

“But there was really good discussion, especially from the two [dissenters] offering different perspectives that I think we entertained for a while,” he said.

He said it forced the jury to consider: “Are we thinking about this as holistically as we can? But I think in the room, most of the jurors had fallen into one side vs. the other.”

The result might not be momentous, he said, especially since the panel didn’t find violation of state gender or age discrimination laws.

What it came down to was how Denton and Maas compared in talent, he suggested.

“I don’t feel like it’s a landmark, or hallmark, decision. I think it is something the news industry might have to contend with in terms of how talent gets assessed and how you have different criteria for how you’re assessing talent.

“And that might be something McKinnon Broadcasting Co. takes into consideration for future employees.” 

Mood in the room?

“I think the jurors got along well,” Perez said in a hallway interview. “Even with dissenting people in the room, it was [respectful]. And everyone was open to listening to the other perspective.

“And over the course of the four weeks, we grew from strangers making small chitchat to becoming more friendly and so there was an air of familiarity and friendliness when we walked in that room.” 

Perez was asked if Maas was seen as a performer.

“All of the contracts have ‘performer’ in them, and I think to a degree the anchors are performing the act of delivering the news, not in a theatrical way but in a way to engender a feeling of family,” Perez said, choosing his words carefully. “We felt that Sandra was authentic in the newsroom.” 

Answers Rehearsed?

But on the witness stand?

“I think at times she felt authentic to us. Other times it felt to me like some of the answers may [have] been rehearsed. But on the whole of the evidence that we saw, what we saw play out — the career that she’d had, the way she testified felt congruent to the testimony that she gave.”

Perez declined to comment on the $80,000 awarded for emotional distress.

But juror Marcy Fullylove of Mount Hope, a 55-year-old Caltrans civil engineer, said she lobbied for a higher figure.

“I said $500,000 was decent” for so-called noneconomic damages. “But everyone kind of voted me down.”

She said it would “get on my nerves after a while” to have been in the San Diego market for so long [since 1990], live here and have people constantly asking: What happened to you? Are you somewhere on television?

Everyone on the jury spoke, she said, and they voted a couple of times, “and no one was going to change their way of thinking. So we said, ‘OK, we’ll let what we have stand.'”

Fullylove also saw a mismatch between KUSI depositions and their witnesses’ trial testimony, what she called “contradictions of the defense’s witnesses.”

“Sometimes they were contradicting one another,” she said. “And so we had to cut through and see which piece of information we can say was true and what wasn’t.”

Jurors went through a lot of emails and a few text messages to come to that conclusion, she said. 

If one thing persuaded her that Maas was right, she said, it was emails that “did not really substantiate what McKinnon Broadcasting was saying.”

KUSI witnesses impeached themselves, she thought.

‘A Sticking Point’

“The smugness of Paul Rudy,” she said. “You could kind of tell [Maas and he] were kind of good friends and he was upset because she had divulged what they were talking about in text messages.

“It was a sticking point for us. Everything [KUSI witnesses] were saying was just over the top. Oh, there was no bloopers of Allen Denton, but there was a sample of hers? You’re trying to tell me he didn’t have any flubs at all?”

The jurors deliberated about two hours Wednesday and started at 9 a.m. Thursday, taking a 15-minute morning break and an hour lunch before wrapping up in midafternoon.

Media were sent notice of a verdict at 3:30 p.m. 

“We only had two pages [to fill out],” Fullylove said after a TV interview. “It was not like we had a lot of stuff. But we did go through them. We went back through the exhibits. Had enough time to do that. We calculated. We talked about the damages.

“We didn’t feel that $10 million was appropriate. We thought that was kind of over the top.” 

Were the verdicts a message to women?

“Oh, that’s a tough one,” Fullylove said. “That things are changing. It’s changing — slowly but surely.”

Several hours before the verdicts were read by Frazier’s clerk (and confirmed by a show of juror hands), the judge discussed with both sides progress in sharing KUSI financial data in case it was needed to calculate punitive damages.

But Maas lawyer Josh Gruenberg didn’t trust what they might get from KUSI owners, and Frazier settled on having KUSI chief financial officer Steve Sadler and an independent CPA file sworn declarations that the private company’s numbers were accurate.

Financial Data Moot

KUSI lawyer Marisa Janine-Page worried that KUSI money data — sought by media valuation expert Lauren Ross — might leak despite a protective order.

In the end, profit-and-loss statements and other records wouldn’t be needed.

Also moot: Fears by KUSI anchors Logan Byrnes and Jason Austell that photos suggesting their salaries would be posted against their wishes. The judge Tuesday conditionally ordered Times of San Diego not to post pictures of charts accidentally shown at trial.

At that 1:30 p.m. hearing, this reporter read a statement on behalf of Times of San Diego publisher Chris Jennewein:

“Times of San Diego and other news publications should always oppose prior restraint. But in this case the information involved was inadvertently released, did not appear to have a major bearing on the case and could be considered invasion of privacy. So we have decided not to challenge the order.”

Judge Frazier was happy to hear that.

“So the matter is moot,” he said. “The court is extremely pleased by the professionalism of everyone. I’m blown away, not that I should be.”

Maas filed suit less than two weeks after cryptically saying during her on-air farewell: “And though I won’t be delivering the news anymore from this anchor chair, I do hope to be making news. And making a difference for women in the workplace.”

Originally, she sought $10 million in damages and cited six laws broken. An amended complaint didn’t specify a monetary figure.

But two weeks before trial, Maas lawyers dropped three “causes of action,” they said, “to help ease the job of the jurors.” The jettisoned claims alleged workplace retaliation, failure to prevent discrimination and breaking a Labor Code rule on equal pay.

The judge’s job was far from easy, however.

In September 2021, Frazier denied KUSI’s demand that Maas pay the station $106,000 in attorney fees.

Frazier rejected KUSI arguments that an earlier ruling made McKinnon Broadcast Co. eligible to claim legal costs under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.

In April 2022, Frazier ordered KUSI to turn over all copies of ex-anchor Anna Laurel’s private emails that KUSI CFO Sadler admitted reading on a shared newsroom laptop — even after Laurel left the station.

Maas friend Laurel also had been labeled a “secret agent” by the station’s lawyers.

Frazier also denied KUSI’s request to remove Gruenberg Law from representing Maas.

KUSI, he said, “has not demonstrated Gruenberg Law engaged in unethical or otherwise improper conduct during its representation of Plaintiff in this case that would justify disqualification.”

Legal Teams Change

In January 2021, however, KUSI began replacing its original lawyers with the current set. In fact, KUSI’s 2020 legal team of Fred Levin, Joseph Connaughton, Joanne Buser and Jacqueline Seiter made no explicit mention of experience in its response to an amended Maas lawsuit.

(But it did cite the Labor Code law that says, in part, a man can get paid more than a women doing substantially similar work if a bona fide factor exists “other than sex, such as education, training or experience.”

Lead counsel Kenneth Moore Fitzgerald joined the KUSI team only two months ago.

Amid pandemic constraints, the trial was pushed back time after time. Dates were set in October 2020, May 2021, January 2022, April 2022, December 2022 and finally February 2023.

On Thursday, Sandra Lynn Maas offered her takeaway: “Always use your voice. If you’re silent, nothing will change.”

Updated at 2 a.m. March 10, 2023