A federal magistrate judge has found former CBS46 chief meteorologist Paul Ossmann’s 2019 lawsuit alleging discrimination and breach of contract to be without substantive merit.
“Contrary to Plaintiff’s conclusory assertion, his ‘mosaic’ of evidence fails to establish that the reasons for his discharge were false, unlawful, or otherwise arbitrary or capricious, and the only argument he presents to avoid summary judgment is without substantive merit,” Magistrate Judge John K. Larkins III said in the conclusion of a 75-page report filed Jan. 7.
The ultimate decision will be made by U.S. District Judge Steven D. Grimberg.
Ossmann was fired in April 2019 for allegedly sexually harassing three female coworkers, his former employer Meredith Corp. said in July of 2019. ”Ossmann’s discharge was not only appropriate, but necessary and consistent with our values,” the station said in a statement at the time.
In Ossmann’s original lawsuit filed in July of that year, he claimed the station dropped him because he was a white man, citing “racially and ethnically discriminatory termination.”
At the time, he dubbed CBS46 a “racially hostile work environment” and claimed breach of contract.
He filed the lawsuit against Meredith Corp., which owned CBS46 at the time. Meredith has since sold its TV stations to Atlanta-based Gray Television.
Meredith last year sought summary judgment to have the case thrown out for lack of merit. Ossmann in his response at the time sought “to reverse or clarify testimony provided during his deposition because, he states, he was ‘tired’ and may have ‘misheard’ questions,” according to Larkins’ report.
Laurel Berenguer, Atlanta-based human resources director for Meredith, said in a deposition that there were three different unnamed women who complained about Ossmann between 2017 and 2019 that led to his firing.
The first woman employee told Berenguer and then news director Frank Volpicella in April 2017 that Ossmann repeatedly used a profane term during a dispute over vacation scheduling, told her he had a dream about them having sex and overheard him saying to an African American employee that he had had sex with a Black woman.
Ossmann admitted to supervisors that he had used the profane term but denied the other two allegations. He was given a written warning, which he signed, according to information Meredith supervisors provided in depositions.
Berenguer said in her deposition that in November 2017, an unnamed female news producer reported to her that Ossmann had sent her messages on Facebook Messenger saying he wanted to have sex with her and asked for photos of her. She told her supervisor she was worried there might be retaliation if she didn’t reciprocate. Ossmann told his bosses that he was just seeking an “off-duty relationship” and apologized for making her feel uncomfortable.
The news director at that time, Steve Doerr, prepared a written warning noting that “further incidents may result in additional disciplinary action, up to and including termination,” according to Berenguer. Ossmann disputes he ever got that warning and later claimed he was told by Doerr he would not be disciplined.
In April 2019, according to information provided by Meredith, Doerr was informed by a female employee that Ossmann had made sexually inappropriately comments to her. The third complainant told Doerr that Ossmann told her, “not to be like uncle Joe [Biden], I wanted to let you know I look at you all the time. You’re so pretty, put together. I see you walk around and you carry yourself very well. You’re very attractive and that’s attractive to me . . . You always look nice.” (At the time, then-presidential nominee Biden was making headlines in relation to sexual assault allegations by a former Senate aide.)
Ossmann, in his deposition, said he meant his comments as praise, characterizing them as “complimenting an employee, telling her she was a doing a great job.” He added that he had seen a “big change” between different generations about what is inappropriate, but still thought that telling a woman “she looks good” should only be viewed as a positive statement.
Doerr, in a meeting with Berenguer, informed Ossmann that he was being suspended pending a decision on how the station would handle the situation. Doerr then met with then-general manager Lyle Banks and they chose to recommend Ossmann’s termination due to his pattern of policy violations.
In his deposition, Doerr said this move was necessary to “maintain a safe workplace free from sexual harassment.” He sent the recommendation to Kandis Bock, vice president for human resources for Meredith at headquarters in Iowa and she approved it.
Larkins, the magistrate judge, disputed Ossmann claims of racial discrimination for being white, saying he provided no tangible proof. He also said Ossmann did not offer “sufficient evidence” that then CBS46 evening anchor Sharon Reed, who is Black, was treated more favorably despite asserting she treated some colleagues “disrespectfully by being abusive, berating them, screaming at them, and terrorizing them.”
Though the report cites several examples of Reed’s negative behavior, the judge said this does not compare to the fact Ossmann’s “behavior involved unwanted sexual advances.” Larkins wrote: “Courts have regularly highlighted that sexual impropriety is categorically different from other misconduct when it comes to comparator evidence in discrimination cases.”
And while Ossmann was replaced by a woman of color, Jennifer Valdez, as chief meteorologist, he could not dispute that Valdez was entirely qualified to take the job, Larkins wrote.
In conclusion, Larkins wrote, “Contrary to Plaintiff’s conclusory assertion, his ‘mosaic’ of evidence fails to establish that the reasons for his discharge were false, unlawful, or otherwise arbitrary or capricious, and the only argument he presents to avoid summary judgment is without substantive merit.”
Ossmann on Feb. 28 filed with the court specific objections to the magistrate judge’s recommendation. He claims that the Meredith HR person, Bock, had based her decision to fire him on an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission analysis of the CBS46 weather team and that this was discriminatory because he was the only white man among the meteorologists at the time. Larkins earlier had said Bock had merely accepted the recommendation from the Atlanta managers to fire Ossmann for cause.
Ossmann in the filing also objected to Larkin’s legal assessment that Ossmann’s efforts to change or advance his testimony in his favor after the fact as a “sham” to prop up his assertions of discrimination.
A Gray Television spokeswoman said the company does not comment on personnel issues like this. Jack Rosenerg, an attorney for Ossmann, declined to comment.
Ossmann had a long career in Atlanta as a TV meteorologist, having previously worked at 11Alive (WXIA-TV) and WAGA-TV. He came to CBS46 in 2012 as a part-time meteorologist and became chief meteorologist in 2017.
About the Author
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com