Former KCTV Channel 5 anchor Karen Fuller’s age and gender discrimination lawsuit against the station can move forward, a federal judge ruled this week.
U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum determined that Fuller had produced sufficient evidence that she had been fired because of her age or gender, and denied KCTV’s bid to throw out the case.
Fuller was a news anchor at KCTV from 2003 until 2015, when she was abruptly let go. She was 47 years old at the time and her lawsuit alleges Meredith Corp., the station’s owner, created an “age ceiling” for its female anchors but not for its male anchors.
KCTV said it let her go because of poor on-air and off-air performance. But Lungstrum found that Fuller’s evidence, viewed in the most favorable light, “creates a reasonable inference that defendant’s stated reasons are pretextual.”
Lungstrum noted that Fuller’s contract had been renewed numerous times, her previous performance appraisals had been positive and she was allowed to anchor during the crucial February sweeps period even after KCTV’s managers decided to fire her.
“Viewing the evidence in plaintiff’s favor, the fact that plaintiff was allowed to anchor during one of the most important viewing periods of the year provides evidence that defendant did not actually consider her a poor on-air performer,” Lungstrum wrote.
He also cited remarks made by KCTV managers as evidence they were looking for a younger anchor to replace Fuller. After viewing a video of the work of Ellen McNamara, who was ultimately hired to replace Fuller, the news director said, “She has a nice Midwestern ‘hometown girl’ look.”
And the station’s creative director said about McNamara’s appearance: “She can be cute and young but also able to dress up and be more serious and respectable … How will she age I wonder?”
Fuller, now an anchor with KGAN, a CBS affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, declined to comment on the advice of her attorney, R. Pete Smith.
Smith, however, said he was pleased with the ruling.
“The judge got it right,” Smith said. “The claim that there was something wrong with her performance is so far wrong that it’s silly. All you have to do is turn on the news at 10 and you see some older guy with white hair like mine doing the news with someone who looks like his daughter.”
A Meredith spokesman did not return a call seeking comment. The station said it does not comment on pending litigation.
Fuller’s case comes 37 years after another Kansas City television news anchor, Christine Craft, was fired at KMBC-TV Channel 9 because focus group research had indicated she was “too old, too unattractive and wouldn’t defer to men.” Craft was 37 at the time.
In a case that drew widespread attention, Craft sued KMBC, claiming that female anchors were judged by different standards than male anchors. A jury awarded her $500,000 but the judge threw out the award and ordered a retrial. On retrial, she won $325,000 but that award was overturned on appeal.
Craft’s attorney, Dennis Egan, said not much progress has been made since then.
“It is interesting that things seem to not change much for females,” Egan said.
Egan also represented three female anchors and reporters at KMBC who sued the station for age and sex discrimination in 2008. The three – Kelly Eckerman, Peggy Breit and Maria Antonia – alleged they were demoted even as much older men were kept on as anchors and younger women were promoted. The women eventually settled the case and remained at the station.
Lungstrum’s ruling is not a decision on the merits of Fuller’s case, only a finding that she has offered enough evidence to warrant a trial. The case is scheduled to go to trial in December.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies