Judge weighs whether to dismiss Huebner suit
By Dave Olson / The Forum - FARGO – An attorney representing a Fargo TV station being sued by former anchorwoman Robin Huebner told a federal judge Tuesday a decision to remove Huebner from the station’s 10 p.m. newscast and replace her with a woman about half her age did not constitute age discrimination.
“Employers need to have the right to make changes,” attorney Gina Janeiro told U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Erickson.
Erickson heard arguments Tuesday on a defense motion to dismiss the case and will rule at a later date on whether a jury will be able to decide if KXJB/KVLY TV illegally discriminated against Huebner on the basis of age and gender.
Huebner was 50 years old in 2011 when the station told her she was being moved from the 10 p.m. newscast to the 5:30 p.m. newscast and that Stephanie Goetz, who was in her mid-20s, would replace her in the 10 p.m. slot.
Huebner’s attorney, James Kaster, told Erickson on Tuesday that the station’s decision to shift Huebner to a different time slot and to cut her pay by about 39 percent was an undeserved demotion designed to make her quit.
He said the same was true for a subsequent proposal the station made to Huebner, which Kaster said would have required Huebner to work a longer work day than she did before any schedule changes had been proposed but receive no increase in pay.
Under that alternative proposal, Kaster said, Huebner would also have had to do reporting work, something she hadn’t done in 20 years.
Janeiro said under an arrangement Huebner worked out with earlier station management she worked about 7½ hours per day, and the alternative proposal the station offered Huebner asked that she work full 8-hour days.
Kaster said Huebner was popular in ratings among female viewers ages 25-54, a demographic prized by advertisers. He said shifting her from the 10 p.m. news, which generated millions in revenue, to the 5:30 p.m. slot, which generated less than $160,000, “was clearly a demotion.”
Janeiro told Erickson shifting anchors around was nothing new at the station, and she said Huebner herself acknowledged changes happen all the time.
The problem, Janeiro said, is that Huebner didn’t like the change, felt it was a demotion and quit. Janeiro said there was no evidence Huebner was treated differently because of her age or gender.
Behind the cameras
Court papers filed in the case show that after the station was bought by Dallas-based Hoak Media of Dakota, LLC, in 2007, the company hired consultants to find ways to build a stronger base of loyal viewers.
According to documents filed on behalf of Hoak Media, a talent coach named Stephanie Rickel worked with Huebner for three years on “her inconsistent appearance and her inability to maintain the energy necessary to drive the 10 p.m. newscast.”
After Goetz was hired in January 2011 to anchor the 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. newscasts, Rickel was impressed with her on-air performance and “even Huebner admitted Goetz did a good job and was a hard worker, although she (Goetz) admittedly made some rookie mistakes,” the documents state.
The documents said Huebner did not agree with some of Goetz’s on-air wardrobe choices and sympathized with the occasional viewer who would write in to complain.
Papers filed on behalf of Huebner state that after 26 years in the industry, including 21 years co-anchoring the 10 p.m. news, Huebner had established herself as one of the most popular anchors in the market. Her attorney maintains that the station’s decision to change her job was based on the notion that as men age they become distinguished and as women age they get old.
The documents filed by Huebner take aim at Goetz’s performance, and cite criticism Goetz received from station management for “her stumbling, garbling speech or mumbling.”
The documents also state Rickel told Goetz she needed to work on her voice, not overdoing her hands and making sure her clothes fit properly.
Huebner’s suit claims that both age and gender discrimination played a role in her job change.
It states that while lack of energy was cited by management as a reason for Huebner’s anchor role change, her male co-anchor on the 10 p.m. newscast, Mike Morken, apparently had the same “energy” issue, but did not see his job change or his pay cut.
Anchor called ‘a cancer’
In support of her claim that the station wanted her to resign, Huebner’s court filings refer to statements made by Rich Adams, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Hoak Media, who also served as the interim general manager at KVLY/KXJB from late 2010 until April 2011.
The court documents state that Adams’ references to Huebner as a “cancer,” “melanoma” and “stink bomb,” reveal the station’s “pleasure in ridding itself of Huebner.”
The documents also state that Adams has sent and received sexist and ageist jokes and photographs from his work email account. In one case, the papers state, Adams forwarded a photograph he had received of a Dallas cheerleader.
Janeiro told Erickson that the station’s current general manager, Jim Wareham, not Adams, was the primary decision maker regarding changes made at the station involving Huebner, and Janeiro said those changes were made in an effort to maximize the station as an asset.
“These changes are made all the time without regard for age,” Janeiro said.
At the close of Tuesday’s hearing, Erickson said he would decide soon whether to grant a defense motion for summary judgment.
Huebner’s suit seeks at least $75,000 in damages, as well as punitive damages.
Huebner is now an employee of Forum Communications Co., which also owns The Forum and WDAY TV, a KVLY competitor.