Jury awards former news anchor Sandra Maas for more than $1.5M in discrimination lawsuit against KUSI

A San Diego Superior Court jury on Thursday awarded former news anchor Sandra Maas nearly $1.6 million from the company that owns KUSI, finding that the TV station had violated equal pay laws by paying her substantially less than her longtime co-anchor.

Jurors deliberated for about a day before reaching the verdict in the suit from Maas, who alleged that McKinnon Broadcasting Co. violated the state’s Equal Pay Act, age and gender discrimination law, and whistleblower retaliation code.

The jury was also found for Maas in her whistleblower claim, in which she argued that her contract was not renewed because she was pushed back against the company for the pay disparity. But it found that KUSI had not discriminated against her based on age or gender, nor had she been involved in malice.

The jury awarded her $200,000 for the equal pay claim, nearly $1.3 million for past and future lost wages, and $80,000 for emotional distress. Maas’ attorney had asked the jury to award her $2.5 million in lost earnings and $5.4 million for past and future emotional distress, among other damages.

Sandra Maas at the San Diego Hall of Justice March 8

Former KUSI anchor Sandra Maas listens to closing arguments during her trial against KUSI at the Hall of Justice on Wednesday. They jury deliberated about a day before reaching a verdict.

(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Maas was not in court for the verdict, but watched remotely via Microsoft Teams. She smiled and buried her face in the palm of her hand as the verdict was read. When she arrived at the courthouse shortly after the verdict, she was hugged by supporters and spoke to reporters.

“The message is always use your voice,” she said. “If you’re silent, nothing will change.”

Maas said she was grateful to the jury, and grateful for the support she received from several local journalists, including women and men.

The litigation was difficult to endure, particularly when lawyers for KUSI criticized her character and work ethics at trial, Maas said.

“That was the worst part,” she said. “That was very painful.”

KUSI’s attorney Ken Fitzgerald said the award was “a fraction” of the $7.9 million for which Maas’ attorneys had asked.

“We are disappointed with the jury’s verdict, but heartened that they did not agree that Ms. Maas was entitled to the enormous sums of money she was seeking,” Fitzgerald said.

“We are also heartened by the fact the jury found that McKinnon Broadcasting did not act with malice, fraud or oppression and did not award punishment by way of punitive damages.”

He said his client intends to file an appeal.

“We continue to believe that Sandra Maas was treated fairly and paid based on her merit,” Fitzgerald said.

Attorneys for Maas said they believe the verdict sends a clear message to employers: Equal pay laws must be taken seriously, and retaliation for complaints about unfair salaries is not OK.

“We feel vindicated,” Josh Gruenberg, Maas’ attorney, said. He also said he was disappointed that the jury did not award punitive damages.

Asked to explain how the jury could find a violation of the Equal Pay Act, but not find age or gender discrimination, Gruenberg said the equal pay claim was based simply on pay disparity between two people who did substantially similar work, which was a separate argument from age or gender discrimination.

“The beauty of the Equal Pay Act is that you don’t have to prove that the pay disparity is because — and I underline the word because — of a protected category,” he said. “It’s very hard to prove that someone is paid less because of their gender or their race or their age or their national origin.”

There was no question that Maas was paid a lower annual salary than male co-anchor Allen Denton on the TV station’s flagship newscast. In 2019, when he retired, his annual salary was $245,000. Hers was $180,000.

At issue was why she was paid less. KUSI argued that Denton had more experience and worked harder.

Maas’ attorney said Maas had worked in broadcast television for 33 years, compared to Denton’s 37 years on TV. KUSI’s attorney said Denton had 48 years of experience, counting 11 years in radio before jumping to TV.

Maas, who worked at CBS 8 in San Diego in the 1990s, started at KUSI as a morning anchor in 2004. Denton, who had worked in the Bay Area, joined KUSI in 2010. Both left the station in 2019.

Outside the courtroom Thursday, juror Danna Adair, 61, said she has watched KUSI for many years. She said she believed Maas had a worthy career in TV news. “The name Sandra Maas was well-known to me,” Adair said, “but Denton? I don’t even remember him.”

She added, “He didn’t have experience like Sandra did in our community here in San Diego.”

Another judge, Ian Del Rosario, 28, said KUSI’s story didn’t seem “as truthful” as Maas’.

Del Rosario said he and other jurors didn’t believe KUSI discriminated against Maas based on gender or age because another female anchor replaced him. Fitzgerald told the jurors during closing arguments that Ginger Jeffries, who was 47, replaced Maas.