In her final years with KUSI News, Sandra Maas was not a happy anchor, according to the station’s lawyers.
After taping one promotional spot, Maas allegedly threw down her earpiece to the production crew and stormed off, saying: “I [effing] hate this place . … I’m over it.”
Maas was let go after 15 years for good reason in June 2019, says KUSI owner McKinnon Broadcasting Co. in new court papers seeking to avoid a December trial in her pay-equity and gender/age discrimination lawsuit.
“Between 2016 and 2019, MBC tried several ways to transition its programming to [a] new generation of [conversational] news delivery but found that its then-current anchors, Alan Denton and Sandra Maas, were of the formal, ‘anchor-like’ style and resistant to the change,” KUSI said.
In a July motion for summary judgment — to be heard Thursday in downtown Superior Court — station lawyers make other claims:
- Maas, now 59, treated her supervisor, news director Steve Cohen, “with palpable disdain.”
- She would often show up shortly before broadcasts and read “cold” from the teleprompter, “without preparation or participation in the stories’ development.”
- And her “disengaged and discontent attitude made it difficult to work with her, and she rejected MBC’s offered three-year contract while continuing her search for employment at other stations.”
Things got so bad, the station says, that it added language to her contract stipulating that her job was full time — five days a week, minimum 40 hours a workweek.
“No other KUSI anchor, or any other employee, had ever required such a contractual reminder,” the station said.
McKinnon’s legal filing July 27 was a first in itself.
Never before in the 3-year-old case had the right-wing station made a case that Maas had no case — or a complaint with no “triable issues.”
The station rejects Maas’ allegations that she was paid less than a male colleague with an identical job.
By citing only her former colleague Denton’s final salary of $250,000, KUSI says, Maas (at $180,000 in her final year) wasn’t dealing straight with the court.
“Comparing apples to apples,” and not just Denton, KUSI says, Maas was paid more than the average of what the station calls “all male comparators’ contracted wages.”
In 2017, Maas made $160,000, compared to the $140,740 average for the likes of colleagues Logan Byrnes, Jason Austell and David Davis, the station says. In 2018, she was contracted to make $180,000, or $40,000 more than male staffers cited by KUSI. And in 2019, “Plaintiffs contracted wages were $180,000, which is more than the average of all male comparators’ wages of $144,838 for the same year.”
KUSI also counters the age-bias allegation by noting that Ginger Jeffries, Byrnes and Laurel — who replaced Denton and Maas when their contracts expired — were all over 40.
“[Maas] was not an employee who was deprived of the opportunity to keep her job, but one who specifically negotiated a final, one-year contract, who advertised her intent to depart, who tried, unsuccessfully, to do so, and whose employment ended solely by operation of the contract she requested,” wrote KUSI lawyer Marisa Janine-Page.
“Plaintiff’s advertised intent to depart coincided with MBC’s transition away from Plaintiff’s stiff and formal style. Therefore, MBC is entitled to summary judgment because the undisputed facts support MBC’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for not renegotiating a new contract with Plaintiff.”
KUSI Loses Motions
Over the course of the case’s 1,202-day life, KUSI has lost a series of motions, including an effort to disqualify Maas’ legal team from downtown’s Gruenberg Law.
KUSI management and legal reps didn’t respond to requests for comment on its motion for summary judgment — including why the motion wasn’t made until this summer.
The McKinnons also want Judge Frazier to order Maas to turn over 10 “withheld” email exchanges with former KUSI anchor Anna Laurel — even after Maas submitted nearly 1,500 pages of materials — which her lawyers call a “rarity” for a recently terminated employee.
They want Laurel, now with KFMB-TV, to sit for a deposition as well.
In a Sept. 30 filing, KUSI seeks sanctions against Laurel or her counsel for “willfully concealing and continuing to withhold responsive documents, requiring MBC to bring this motion to obtain discovery, in an amount no less than $16,938.50.”
Frazier has also set 8:30 a.m. Thursday to hear those motions — in Department 65 on the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice, 330 W. Broadway.
But in a flurry of September filings, including deposition snippets, lawyers for Maas argue the case should go to trial as scheduled at 9:45 a.m. Dec. 2.
“In an attempt to avoid the inevitable jury trial, Defendant KUSI’s motion for summary judgment desperately attempts to move the goalposts with inapplicable law, bad law and self-contradicting ‘arguments,’” said Maas legal team. “To say this case is replete with factual disputes would be generous to KUSI. The court will have little trouble denying [KUSI’s] motion in its entirety.”
Maas’ team said her boss, Steve Cohen, told a deposition that he believed “the Diane Sawyer of San Diego” was “an apt description” for Maas.
Other rebuttals include:
- “Denton was the only comparator to Maas because they did the exact same jobs on the exact same shows for years — and yet Defendant paid Denton considerably more each year. Indeed, it is Defendant who is doing its own self-serving cherry-picking by disingenuously throwing all of its male on-air talent into a ‘class’ to compare with Maas (and Denton).”
- “Plaintiff is not ‘cherry picking’ Denton because Defendant paid him a higher salary. For the better part of nine years … Plaintiff and Denton performed the exact same primary on-air job, together. As of 2018, Plaintiff and Denton were co-anchors of Defendant’s weeknight 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 1O p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. … No other employee shared that commonality.”
- “Moreover, Defendant’s primetime 10 p.m. newscast is its ‘newscast of record,’ which reaches the largest audience of any of Defendant’s shows.”
- “To be clear, Allen Denton was (and is) great, and was also an integral part of San Diegans’ lives. But Defendant cannot justify a $65,000 to $80,000 annual wage differential in Plaintiffs final three years at KUSI.”
- “After announcement of the termination, Steve Cohen admitted to Plaintiff: ‘This is not about your performance. We are bringing in a new generation of people.’ In doing so, a reasonable trier of fact could determine Cohen also admitted to terminating Plaintiff in favor of the younger, ‘new generation’ of people.”
- In her own deposition, Maas referred to Cohen as “my 70-something-year-old news director telling me that they were firing me for no reason, I had doing nothing wrong, it wasn’t about my performance, but they were bringing in a new generation of people, lots of them.”
Now why did they fire me? It wasn’t because of my performance or my community service or my experience in the market or my dedication to the station, and all of that. They were firing me because of my age, three male colleagues had retired in the past year on their own terms with lavish parties and festivities celebrating their time, and they wanted me to walk out in the parking lot.
I was fired because of my gender. They don’t respect women at McKinnon Broadcasting Company. And I was fired because I was fighting for equal pay. That is why I was fired from KUSI and I know it and they know it. And you know what, if I was 36 instead of 56 when they fired me, I probably would have walked away silently and not said anything because, you know what, I probably would have gotten a job again quite easily.
But I’m 56 years old. It’s difficult for women in broadcasting. The shelf life is a little bit shorter
than for men, and that is certainly the case where I worked. But, you know, I’ve taken a lot of time to care for myself and to keep it together.
The Maas legal team has one final bullet up its sleeve — a technicality that could shoot down the whole KUSI summary judgment motion.
They say Frazier should dismiss it as procedurally improper since its points and authorities exceed the 20-page limit set in the California Rules of Court.
“Defendant’s memorandum spanned 22½ pages long,” said the Maas lawyers, “and it did not seek the Court’s permission to tile the excessive memorandum. Accordingly, the Court should disregard the tiling.”