KUSI Tries to Bar Press and Public from Parts of Former Anchor Sandra Maas Equal-Pay Trial

by on February 3, 2023 · 0 comments

in Labor, Media, San Diego

Sandra Maas with Josh Gruenberg, her lead attorney. Edited from photo of October 2022 by Ken Stone.

By Ken Stone / Times of San Diego / February 2, 2023

In a rare move, lawyers for KUSI-TV are asking a Superior Court judge to prohibit news media and the public from attending “portions” of former anchor Sandra Maas’ pay-equity trial starting Friday.

Last Friday, McKinnon Broadcasting Co., the Kearny Mesa station’s operator, asked Judge Ronald Frazier to close parts of the civil trial dealing with KUSI finances, especially how much it pays on-air talent.

“This is a small, insular industry and the disclosure of nonparty witnesses’ salaries to the public serves no purpose but to invade these … witnesses’ protected financial privacy, embarrass and/or taint their reputation, and chill these key witnesses’ material testimony and documentary evidence,” said one of a batch of KUSI motions.

Also notable: Maas seeks to drop three allegations.

“To help ease the job of the jurors,” her lawyers said, Maas “has volunteered to dismiss her third, fourth and sixth causes of action” that allege retaliation and failure to prevent discrimination.

Remaining are claims of KUSI violating the California Equal Pay Act, age or gender discrimination laws and whistleblower protections.

According to a trial brief filed Wednesday, Maas seeks unspecified monetary damages for past and future lost wages, past and future mental and emotional distress as well as punitive damages and injunctive relief.

On its bid to bar press at certain sessions, MBC says disclosures would compromise its financial business privacy and rights by revealing anchor salaries to its competitors.

“There are only four other news stations operating in San Diego,” the motion noted.

Josh Gruenberg, a lead attorney for Maas, on Wednesday told Times of San Diego: “We’ll fight it. This is a public-has-a-right-to-know case.”

Interestingly, the Maas legal team is asking Frazier for an order excluding all documents and testimony about the wages of KUSl employees other than Maas and Allen Denton, her former co-anchor.

Such evidence is irrelevant and inadmissible, her lawyers say, and could result in a mistrial if the jury hears such evidence.

“Plaintiff Sandra Maas has one comparator: her co-anchor Alan Denton, who worked side-by-side in prime time with her for years,” the Maas lawyers write, decrying KUSI “injecting the salaries [of] other lower earning male employee on-air talent in a blatant attempt to confuse the jury.”

Among those MBC may call to testify are current and former KUSI staffers Carlos Amezcua, Jason Austell, Logan Byrnes, Ginger Jeffries, Paul Rudy, Lauren McDonnell, Sasha Foo, Mark Mathis, Ross Becker and Dan Plante.

“Those non-parties are constitutionally protected from having their confidential financial information publicly revealed and several of these non-parties insist that their salaries and other private financials not be disclosed at trial,” KUSI lawyers said, adding that the employees won’t testify unless “protections are in place to ensure their financial information is not publicly released.”

KUSI-TV didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Criminal trials are virtually never closed, but under California law, judges may close parts of civil trials.
A Superior Court spokeswoman said the decision on whether to close a court proceeding rests with the judge hearing the case.

“There are occasions where all or parts of a court proceeding are closed to the public, but we do not track or monitor the individual decisions of judges on this issue,” she said.

But the irony of a news outlet wanting to keep news media from covering a trial is not lost on Dean Nelson, journalism director at Point Loma Nazarene University.

“I am always amazed and amused when news organizations want to keep the news media out of their hair,” Nelson said via email. “KUSI isn’t the only news organization to claim privacy, but for people like us whose job it is to dig past the baloney, it seems a little disingenuous to keep the press out of these proceedings, particularly when it involves a public figure.”

He added: “What would happen if co-workers or the public knew how much money their staffers made? I’m not sure why they’re afraid to let that information out.”
If the courtroom can’t be closed, however, KUSI wants the judge to enact a gag order on those present to “ensure that all admitted to the courtroom are bound by the Protective Order entered in this case, including limiting the scope of media coverage.”

KUSI lawyers also contend that Maas and her legal team “have chosen to litigate this lawsuit in the media. There have been more than a dozen news articles specifically reporting on the progress of this case, the last one only one week ago,” referring to Times of San Diego coverage.

“It is certain and expected that the media will seek to attend, report on and publish testimony and factual evidence from the trial,” KUSI added.

According to Calaware, the open-government advocacy group, civil proceedings are presumed open in California — governed by the state Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in NBC Subsidiary (KNBC-TV), Inc. v. Superior Court.

In a case growing out of a closed trial involving Clint Eastwood, the state high court held that courts should consider closing civil case courtrooms “only in the rarest of circumstances,” and then only when several conditions are met.

Those conditions include providing public notice of the contemplated closure and a trial court holding a hearing.

In the 1999 case, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote the unanimous opinion.

“Recent decisions make clear that, as a general matter, frequent and specific cautionary admonitions to the jury and clear and direct instructions, rather than closure of the courtroom to the public, constitute the accepted, presumptively adequate, and typically less restrictive means of dealing with this potential problem,” George wrote.

Judge Frazier also must address a number of other motions — from both sides.

KUSI wants to keep Maas, her counsel and any other lay or expert witness from “referring to, commenting on, arguing or implying” that other women at MBC may have claimed that sexual harassment occurred at MBC. Same for any testimony on racial discrimination at MBC.

“Such evidence would only serve to confuse, mislead and inflame the passions of the jury, and waste their time,” KUSI lawyers say.

KUSI also doesn’t want to hear from or about Laura Buxton, who worked at KUSI from 1993 to early 2002, or Andrea Naversen (1994 to 2000).

“Although Ms. Buxton left MBC on good terms and has never filed any complaint against MBC for any purpose, [Maas] … alleges that Ms. Buxton quit her job at MBC after a pay equity dispute,” KUSI says. “This is not true and would be improper evidence at trial.”

Naversen, depicted as a close friend of Maas for 30 years, exchanged texts with Maas reproduced in court filings.

Before Maas left the station in 2019 after her contract wasn’t renewed, Naversen texted: “I wish there were a real media critic so that I could leak the real story when the timing is right.”

Referring to Union-Tribune writer Lori Weisberg, Naversen texted: “I do know biz reporter married to JW August, as well as Michele Parente [a U-T editor]. There has certainly been an exodus at the station to make way for ‘a new generation’!

“Maas may have run afoul of station management when she asked for equal pay after learning a male co-anchor was making far more,” the Naversen text added. “KUSI is known for offering lower salaries than other stations in town, and support staff often need to work two jobs because they aren’t given enough hours to receive benefits.”

Maas’ lawyers want certain testimony and evidence limited as well.

One motion, also made Friday, asks Frazier to exclude all documents and testimony not previously identified in 3½ years of discovery.

“Admission of any such evidence would cause unfair surprise and would be inconsistent with California’s discovery statutes,” the Maas lawyers said.
The Maas team also wants the judge to keep a previous Maas case away from the jury — one in which KFMB sued Maas in a contract dispute in 2001.

“The only possible reason that [KUSI] could have to tell/show a jury such documents and information would be to try to argue that Maas is a ‘diva’ and therefore did not honor a former employment contract,” Maas lawyers said.

This would lead to a lot of wasted time asking witnesses about the KFMB complaint, the events leading up to it and its resolution, Maas lawyers said.

“Defendant undoubtedly plans to turn the entire trial into a referendum on whether Maas was a ‘diva’ or ‘demanding’ person. This would lead to a mini-trial about whether Maas did or said what she was sued for,” Maas lawyers said. “This could take days of trial time, without any bearing on Maas’ triable claims.”

Along those lines, Maas wants the court to exclude all documents and testimony of her dress and makeup reimbursement receipts because KUSI “presumably wants to paint [Maas] as a ‘diva’ at trial.”

And finally, the Maas team wants a court order barring all documents and testimony of political views of either party — or any witness.

“Defendant is a conservative-leaning news station,” Maas lawyers said. “Both sides appear to want to avoid discussing politics. Further, it is highly irrelevant and an obviously prejudicial Evidence Code§ 22 352 issue.”


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