Update, November 27, 2019: Former WFOR reporter Michele Gillen and CBS reached a settlement on November 26, according to federal court records. The terms were not publicly disclosed.
In September 2018, longtime WFOR-TV (CBS 4) anchor Michele Gillen sued her former employer in federal court for wrongful termination due to age and sex discrimination. Gillen, an Emmy Award-winning reporter in WFOR’s investigative unit, claimed her story ideas were routinely rejected and then given to younger reporters. And she said a co-worker — anchor and investigative reporter Jim DeFede — made disparaging remarks to her and about women in general.
More than a year after Gillen filed suit, CBS Corporation has responded.
In a motion for summary judgment, the broadcasting company has asked U.S. District Court Judge Robert Scola Jr. to dismiss Gillen's complaint. CBS contends she was let go not because she was old or a woman, but because she made too much money and didn't pull her weight on the news team.
In court documents obtained by New Times, CBS portrays Gillen as an unproductive employee and a frequent no-show at work who failed to complete stories in a timely manner. The motion quotes statements taken from CBS 4 managers, reporters, and producers. Regarding Gillen's claim of sex and wage discrimination, CBS states she "commanded a significantly higher salary than her counterparts, both of whom were male and younger than she."
Gillen, age 64, did not respond to New Times' repeated requests for comment about the case. Her attorney, Louise Caro, declined to comment about CBS's motion but told New Times last month: "We are nowhere close to a meeting of the minds and are proceeding toward trial."
In her complaint, Gillen alleged that special projects and investigative executive producer Cari Hernandez and news director Liz Roldan discriminated against her by assigning big stories to younger reporters. In some cases, Gillen alleged, stories she pitched were assigned to younger, less experienced journalists at the station.
One of the most striking episodes recounted in Gillen's complaint involved a July 2014 special-projects staff meeting in which DeFede berated her for failing to carry her share of the load. According to Gillen, DeFede said he was fed up with trying to come up with stories that would appeal to "women who are menstruating and watching Blue Bloods" — a reference to the CBS series featuring Tom Selleck. (DeFede was a staff writer and columnist at New Times for more than a decade beginning in the early '90s and spent several years in a similar role at the Miami Herald.)
In its motion for summary judgment, CBS concedes the incident occurred. But the company says that WFOR general manager Adam Levy admonished DeFede after the blowup and that Levy and Roldan expressed their "extreme disappointment" in DeFede's behavior. Hernandez, DeFede's boss, was also admonished for not immediately calling out DeFede during the meeting for remarks CBS describes as "inappropriate" but "not unlawful."
In a sworn deposition included in the court file, DeFede said he believed Gillen wasn't contributing as much as she should have, but his remarks about "menstruating women" were a general complaint about having to do stories based on ratings potential rather than substance and weren’t directed at Gillen.
CBS says DeFede's bosses ordered him to apologize to Gillen. In his statement, DeFede said he wrote her two notes of apology but received no reply. Levy and Roldan say they reached out to Gillen for her thoughts about the "menstruating women" meeting but didn’t hear back.
Gillen then took a voluntary two-month leave of absence and, upon her return, filed a complaint with CBS's human resources department. CBS says internal investigations conducted locally and by company executives in New York determined her complaints were unfounded.
Upon Gillen's return to work in November 2014, CBS says, WFOR signed her to a new two-year contract that contained an unprecedented clause: Because of her history of "low production," she would be required to complete at least three stories to air each month.
Gillen said she produced the required three stories per month but was retaliated against for having complained. She was removed from her position as anchor of the station's public-affairs program, Focus on South Florida, and replaced by Irika Sargent, a newly arrived and much younger anchor. Gillen said that when she objected, Roldan exploded.
"God damn it, no one was supposed to tell you, no one can keep a secret in this newsroom. It is just a business decision for us. Don't take it personally," Gillen's complaint quoted Roldan as saying.
Gillen said she found herself being assigned stories that often never aired and alleges she was denied adequate resources to do her job.
In September 2016, two months before her contract was set to expire, Levy called Gillen into his office and fired her, paying her the remainder of what she was owed. Levy and CBS contend Gillen's lack of work ethic and premium salary were the sole reasons behind the decision to let her go.
CBS says the problems with Gillen's work performance began as early as August 2009, when "significant issues developed with respect to [Gillen’s] productivity and her disruption of news operations."
In one sweeps period — a month during which vital viewer ratings are measured — "Gillen completed only one story," CBS contends.
CBS’s motion states that former special-projects producer Amber Statler-Williams said Gillen failed to complete basic tasks, such as writing openings and closings for her stories to be read by news anchors.
Statler-Williams said Gillen was "the least productive employee in the building." Hernandez added that Gillen frequently did not come to the station and would instead submit scripts from home via email, and that she missed deadlines.
That account stands in contrast to supporting documents filed by Gillen's legal team.
One potential trial witness is Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Steven Leifman, with whom Gillen worked on a number of stories involving mentally ill criminal offenders. Among the 25 regional Emmy Awards Gillen received at WFOR, one was for the series "The Forgotten Floor," which chronicled the horrid conditions mentally ill inmates endured in the Dade County Jail. Leifman tells New Times Gillen told him of the harassment and discrimination she was experiencing at work.
"I felt very sad for her," Leifman says. "There were times when she couldn't get a cameraman to do some of the work she needed to complete her stories."
Court records also contain a letter from WFOR photographer Muhammad Hassan supporting Gillen's claims of age discrimination. Hassan recounts a conversation with Hernandez, who was instructing him to shoot a story with Gillen.
"I can't stand that old bitch — make her work," Hassan quoted Hernandez as saying.
In another exchange, Hassan said, Hernandez assigned him to work with consumer reporter Al Sunshine, who, like Gillen, was one of the staff’s senior members. Hassan recalled Hernandez telling him: "You're working with Al today. I need you to work his old, lazy ass."
In her sworn deposition, Hernandez vehemently denied Hassan's version of events.
“Those are absolute lies, and it's absolutely disheartening and disgusting to hear him say things about me, because I don't talk like that,” she said.
A little later, while still under oath, Hernandez elaborated, "[I]f anybody knows about being discriminated against, it's me. I'm black. I am Latin. I am a woman. I'm discriminated against on all levels. And throughout my entire career I've always been looked at, you know, through those lenses. So I'm not going to sit here and walk around looking to discriminate against other people.”
CBS has not commented on the case to the media beyond a brief denial of Gillen's claims when she filed her suit. At the time, CBS issued a statement saying, "Michele Gillen was treated fairly when she worked for WFOR-TV, and station management's decision to not renew her contract in 2016 was justified. Her claims are factually inaccurate and will not survive scrutiny."
Judge Scola has yet to rule on CBS's motion. The case is set for a jury trial that will begin December 9.
Court filings indicate potential witnesses include some big names. Most notable is Les Moonves, the former CEO of CBS Corporation, who was forced to resign after several women accused him of sexual harassment.
Editor's note: Gary Nelson is a retired broadcast journalist of 49 years and reported for WFOR for more than 26 years.
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