A judge has awarded former Kansas City television reporter Lisa Benson Cooper $110,000 in lost wages and her attorneys nearly $692,000 in legal fees in her retaliation case against KSHB-TV Channel 41.
The judge, however, denied their requests for larger amounts.
Cooper, who is African American, was a general assignment reporter at Channel 41 for 14 years before she was let go in mid-2018. She went by Lisa Benson on the air.
Cooper sued KSHB and its owner, Cincinnati-based Scripps Media, in late 2016 for race discrimination, alleging she was denied promotions and other job opportunities because of her race. After the station declined to renew her contract, she added retaliation claims to her lawsuit.
Following a 10-day trial in February, a federal jury in February awarded Cooper $26,000 in actual damages and $175,000 in punitive damages on her retaliation claims.
The jury found that KSHB unlawfully suspended her in 2015 and didn’t renew her contract in 2018 because she complained about race discrimination and later sued the station.
At the same time, the jury found in favor of the station and Scripps Media on Cooper’s race discrimination claims.
After the trial, Cooper asked U.S. District Judge Beth Phillips to award her “front pay,” or lost wages, up to her retirement – a period of more than 20 years given that Cooper is 43 years old. The station asked Phillips to award her no more than six months front pay.
Phillips found that six months was too little and more than 20 years was too much. Instead, she awarded Cooper two years of front pay.
“Evidence at trial demonstrated that, in this industry, few employees stay with the same employer for an extended period, and there is no reason to believe that Plaintiff would have remained employed by Defendant through retirement,” Phillips wrote in her ruling on Wednesday.
She also denied Cooper’s requests for orders barring KSHB from retaliating against employees, requiring it to follow its own internal rules and procedures, requiring it to train employees on the science underlying implicit bias and requiring it to justify in writing adverse actions it takes against employees who engage in protected activity.
Phillips said she saw no reason to interfere in KSHB’s business operations. However, in response to Cooper’s request that her employment record be “expunged,” Phillips ordered the station to include copies of the jury’s retaliation verdict in her employment file.
Asked to comment on Phillips' rulings, Cooper said she was pleased that “we're getting closer to the actual end of this chapter of my life.”
“My hope in filing the initial grievance and lawsuit almost three years ago now was to change the reality of working at KSHB-TV and working for E.W. Scripps,” Benson said. “I believe there were racial disparities and I believe that my lawsuit, coupled with Dee Jackson's lawsuit — there have been and will continue to be changes within the organization. So I'm pleased.”
Cooper was referring to a race discrimination lawsuit filed by Demetrice “Dee” Jackson, another black reporter at KSHB. Jackson, who is represented by the same attorneys as Cooper, alleges he was twice passed over for the position of sports director after he was led to believe he would get the job.
Cooper said she was writing a book about her experiences at KSHB that she hopes to publish within the next couple of months.
Stephen Watt, KSHB's general manager, said the station was pleased the jury rejected Cooper's discrimination claims.
“We are deeply committed to diversity and inclusion and look forward to putting this chapter behind us as a station and focusing on what we do best: reporting the news,” Watt said in an email.
Watt said the station was considering whether to appeal the jury's findings that KSHB retaliated against Cooper.
The federal anti-discrimination law under which Cooper sued also allows the prevailing party to recover “reasonable attorney’s fees.” Cooper’s attorneys had sought $1.09 million in attorney’s fees and approximately $52,000 in expenses for their work over more than two years. Phillips, however, ruled they were entitled to just $691,660 and $31,048, respectively, based on their partial success in the lawsuit.
She also rejected KSHB’s request for its own award of attorney’s fees on the grounds it had to defend frivolous claims and Cooper’s attorneys “unreasonably and vexatiously” increased the work it was required to do.
Phillips disagreed, finding the claims were not frivolous and the work not unreasonable or vexatious.
Cooper was represented by attorneys with The Popham Law Firm and The Meyers Law Firm.
Marty Meyers, of The Meyers Law Firm, said that Cooper felt vindicated that Phillips had upheld the jury's retaliation verdict.
“I think she did a masterful job of navigating all the other issues,” he said.
This story was updated to include the comments of Lisa Benson Cooper and the comments of KSHB's general manager, Stephen Watt.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.