In a Superior Court filing this month, lawyers for KUSI owner McKinnon Broadcasting Co. said: “Although Defendants deny that they intruded upon any protected privacy right in this case, to the extent any intrusion is found, such intrusion was justified to further a legitimate or compelling countervailing interest of MBC.”
Laurel sued her old employer July 28 and seeks various unspecified monetary damages in a case related to the pay-equity victory by ex-KUSI colleague Sandra Maas.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Maas are appealing a court award of $2.4 million in attorneys fees, saying they deserved $4 million for four years’ work on the case — and the risk taking it on.
(But KUSI has set aside $6.3 million in a county trust account in case it has to pay the lawyers more than originally granted.)
KUSI Chief Financial Officer Stephen Sadler admitted to opening as many as 100 Laurel emails in two to five searches “to protect the company,” aware that Laurel was possibly providing favorable testimony for Maas’s lawsuit, her lawyers say.
Maas won key portions of her suit, but KUSI is appealing the civil jury verdict of March, which ordered the conservative station’s owners to pay her $1.7 million.
KUSI attorney Ken Fitzgerald, responding to my email queries, said this week:
McKinnon Broadcasting believes that Anna Laurel’s lawsuit is wholly without merit. She used a company-owned KUSI laptop computer to send personal emails, despite signing a company policy through which she agreed that all emails on the company’s electronic communications systems equipment were company property, that employees using that equipment for personal purposes had no right to privacy and that the company had the right to inspect and monitor her use of that equipment
Every employee in this day and age understands that company computers are for company business, and everyone in the modern workplace understands that they have no right to privacy in personal emails on company computers.
Ms. Laurel left her personal email account open on a company computer, and McKinnon Broadcasting exercised its legitimate right to inspect the communications that were on the company’s computer. For her to claim that this was somehow an invasion of her personal privacy is frankly absurd.
Laurel attorney Josh Gruenberg scoffed at the KUSI filing’s arguments, includings that it was merely protecting its business interests by viewing her email.
“Frankly, I think these defenses are ridiculous,” he said in a phone interview.
“How was Miss Laurel to mitigate her damages when all of her damages are stress-related? Are they saying that she is partly to blame for her stress because she did not seek therapy for what they did to her?”
Gruenberg noted that KUSI and Sadler “snooped” her personal emails long after she stopped working for KUSI in August 2020 after a two-year stint.
He called this an invasion of privacy “that our jury will find shocking as anyone would. As the court held in a related ruling in the Maas case, KUSI had no legitimate business reason to snoop the emails.”
In fact, Laurel was not allowed to testify about the email invasion at the Maas trial.
Gruenberg said Judge Ronald Frazier in pretrial rulings found such potential testimony prejudicial and “rightly so” because the revelation would be “so shocking” to jurors.
“Equally outrageous,” the San Diego attorney said, was KUSI’s claim it had the right to look at Laurel’s private emails for the sake of checking on her Maas contacts.
KUSI attorney Fitzgerald added via email:
Ms. Laurel is suing under California Penal Code section 502, which is an anti-hacking statute. No hacking of her email account took place. Instead, McKinnon Broadcasting inspected emails that she left open on the company’s computer.
Her own computer forensics expert confirmed that there was no hacking of her email account. It’s unfortunate that her lawyers are ignoring these facts in pursuing this vexatious lawsuit.
Maas lawyer Gruenberg says KUSI paid its own legal team $1.9 million despite the loss.
“We were awarded $2.3 million, and we won the case and we haven’t been paid yet,” he said. “Interest [on money owed Maas] is accruing at a thousand dollars a day, which is OK by me. And I do believe that the appellate court is going to come to the conclusion that the court’s awarded attorneys fees was insufficient.”
The Gruenberg Law Firm wanted a 1.45 multiplier applied to its submitted charges (for 4,088 hours of work since 2019) because of the risk it took in taking the case and the length of the litigation.
Because the McKinnons were selling their San Diego station to Texas-base Nexstar Media Inc., the Maas team also initiated collection efforts and put liens on KUSI property, both real and personal, Gruenberg said.
“In order [for KUSI] to move forward with the sale, we reached a stipulation by which KUSI would deposit $6.3 million into trust pending resolution of the case.” Which was done Sept. 6.
Gruenberg doubts that the McKinnons — Michael and son Michael Jr. — would withdraw the money, saying they’d be put in jail for that action.
“So we feel adequately secured with that $6.3 million,” he said. “That $6.3 million is certainly enough to cover the underlying verdict, the ruling on the attorneys fees, interest and whatever attorneys fees we go back and get as a result of continuing to litigate this case.
“So we feel adequately protected at this time.”