Counting Chickens? Maas Lawyer Seeks KUSI Data for Possible Punitive Damages #ThePayoff Wordle 613 X #twug Tommie #JJK214 Yuji Adin Ross #RHONJ #JJKSpoilers Creighton Vivek Daily Quordle 394

Sandra Maas smiles on Day 6 of her pay-equity trial against KUSI-TV.
Plaintiff Sandra Maas, who takes the stand Tuesday, smiles on Day 6 of her pay-equity trial against KUSI-TV. Photo by Ken Stone

An HR industry expert told a jury Thursday she’s charged former TV news anchor Sandra Maas between $16,000 and $17,000 so far — including $525 an hour for her time on the witness stand.

Money owed Debra Reilly for 45 hours of work may be a bargain, though, if she helps Maas win her pay-equity case against KUSI-TV in downtown Superior Court and collect millions in punitive damages.

After the jury was let go, Maas attorney Josh Gruenberg said his punitive damages expert wanted data from the Kearny Mesa station.

“We need to provide that to the expert and give her time to do her analysis,” the COVID-struck lawyer told Judge Ronald Frazier via remote hookup.

His unnamed expert needs 24 hours to review KUSI financials, including profit-and-loss statements, balance sheets and four years of bank statements, Gruenberg said.

But when he said he wanted KUSI to provide “compensation schedules” through 2022, Frazier balked — calling that request “ridiculous.”

Gruenberg said it wasn’t.

“What if the [father-and-son owner] McKinnons are being paid $5 billion each for their roles at the station — and that is depleting the company of its value?” he asked.

KUSI lawyer Ken Fitzgerald said 28 categories of info were requested, and Judge Frazier — used to viewing “just the P&Ls” — told Gruenberg: “I’ve never seen anything this extensive.”

After a 10-minute discussion, Frazier told both sides to get together to identify the basics of what the expert needs, “not her perfect wish list.”

“I will always keep an open mind,” the judge said.

On Day 6 of the trial — when the Hall of Justice courtroom was cleared yet again (for 13 minutes) to discuss private KUSI salary information — both sides finished quizzing Sally Luck, KUSI’s longtime HR director, and began with industry expert and consultant Reilly.

An attorney since 1990 with numerous credentials in human resources and labor law training, Reilly said she’s been a frequent expert witness — testifying on behalf of plaintiffs like Maas 19 times and employer defendants 14 times, sometimes in federal court.

Under questioning by Maas attorney Pamela Vallero, Reilly said Luck “deviated” or was “below standards” of the HR industry on investigating Maas’ complaints of not being paid the same as her now retired co-anchor, Allen Denton.

She said Luck “didn’t follow any of the steps” described in guidelines of the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing — an agency now calling itself the Civil Rights Department.

Luck didn’t conduct a “fair, complete and thorough” probe and failed to follow rules spelled out in KUSI’s own employee manual for investigating gender or age discrimination, or retaliation, Reilly said.

Conflict of Interest?

Reilly accused Luck of a conflict of interest and said she should have farmed out the review to an independent party — someone not reporting directly to general manager Mike McKinnon Jr.

Luck should have conducted interviews of Maas’ supervisor, colleagues and other parties involved and assessed her own bias, recusing herself if need be, Reilly said.

KUSI could legally pay Maas less than her co-anchor if certain criteria were met, Reilly said, such as having a spelled out merit-pay system or a seniority system (as used by labor unions).

A wage disparity based on production also can be OK. (Reilly recalled the “I Love Lucy” scene of wrapping candies on a speeding up factory conveyor belt.)

But Luck didn’t analyze these issues, Reilly said.

Denton’s previous work experience — which Maas’ bosses cite as a reason for a pay difference reaching $80,000 at points — also didn’t count, she said.

“Things that happened a long time ago may not be relevant anymore,” Reilly said.

KUSI lawyer Marisa Janine-Page sought to shake juror confidence in Reilly by noting possible differences in her deposition testimony and Thursday’s responses.

Janine-Page also showed email about Reilly’s retainment deal with the Gruenberg law firm in an effort to depict her as biased. But Reilly said the email dealt with her consulting agreement, not an immediate pledge to be an expert witness at trial.

Reilly conceded she hadn’t interviewed Maas, Luck, news director Steve Cohen or the McKinnons but said: “That’s not my role to go and interview the parties in the case.”

It’s unclear whether the Maas side would call the punitive damages expert to the stand — or even be allowed to.

But state law certainly allows for such punishment, sometimes called exemplary damages.

‘Goal is to Punish’

Many legal sites describe the process.

“Punitive damages are reserved for when a defendant is proven to be guilty of oppression, fraud or malice,” said one blog. “The goal is to both punish the defendant for their behavior, and to deter them and others from performing that type of behavior in the future.”

Under California Civil Code 3294, such damages aren’t capped. But the U.S. Supreme Court frowns on a figure more than, say, 10 times the amount of lost wages (compensatory damages) in a case like this.

“Until 1955, the largest punitive damage award in California was $75,000, and in 1979, a San Diego federal jury returned the largest punitive damages award to that day — $14,750,000 in a securities fraud class action,” said another account.

In the Maas vs. KUSI case, one potential juror was excused for saying he opposed large punitive payouts.

The day started with both sides — out of hearing of jurors — complaining about nonverbal communications by each other. Maas was dinged for facial reactions to testimony and the KUSI side for “scoffing multiple times” heard by the Maas lawyers.

Judge Frazier told Maas, again, to exercise more self-control.

“Don’t react,” he said. Keep a straight face and take notes to blow off emotions, he suggested.

“I’m not mad. I’m not admonishing. Just be aware,” Frazier told both sides.

On a cold winter day, Maas, 60, wore a white suit in anticipation of testifying. But Reilly took longer than expected and Judge Frazier had a hearing set for the afternoon. (Maas will take the stand after trial resumes about 9 a.m. Tuesday.)

So instead of dismissing jurors at the typical 4:30 p.m., he cut them loose at 3.

Said Frazier: “You guys have been such a good jury, you get to go home early.”

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