Indy Star will go to trial in age discrimination suit filed by laid-off columnist

Susan J. Guyett says she was laid off from her job at the Gannett paper because of her age. She was 59 at the time. The judge presiding over the matter says there is enough evidence to go to trial in April. U.S. District Court Judge Richard L. Young found Star Editor and Vice President Dennis Ryerson’s explanations for her termination “contradictory.”

Replacing Plaintiff with [a reporter 20 years younger] indicates that the news reporters were not indispensible, as Ryerson claimed, and casts doubt on the legitimacy of the Star’s stated reason for Plaintiff’s termination versus reporters in the hard news department with less seniority.

Guyett was laid off in December 2008, after Ryerson described her as “uniquely qualified” to handle “a very unusual beat,” Young wrote in his order.

The order reveals details about how layoff decisions were made at the Star:

In November 2008, [Star President and Publisher Michael] Kane notified the Star’s employees of the need for a second RIF in order to reduce payroll expenses by ten percent, or roughly $980,000 and a headcount target of twenty. … Ryerson was again in charge of the RIF [reduction in force] … Of the factors he considered in deciding which jobs to eliminate, Ryerson considered seniority to be paramount. … To begin the process of elimination, Ryerson and Todd Moore (“Moore”), his Administrative Editor, generated lists of newsroom employees. … Again, Ryerson divided the newsroom employees by division, department, and job classification. …

Ryerson decided not to include any reporters from hard news departments, such as business, community news, sports, and others, in the December 2008 RIF, because those departments serve the basic function of the newspaper. … On the other hand, the Features/My Life department was included in the RIF, because it was not high on Ryerson’s priority list and required a different kind of reporting. … In other words, a person may be a good features reporter, but cannot cover community news. … Ryerson believed it would be easier for a new reporter to continue the Talk of Our Town column than to move into a community news reporting position.

Initially, Ryerson did not include Plaintiff on a list of employees being considered for termination. … In an email to Keough on November 10, 2008, Ryerson suggested that Plaintiff should not be terminated, because he believed she covered “a very unusual beat” and was “uniquely qualified to handle it.” … Accordingly, he contemplated making an exception for Plaintiff under the “outstanding ability” caveat in the CBA [collective bargaining agreement], even if she had less seniority than other employees who were terminated. …

The list that Ryerson eventually used to determine RIF candidates was prepared by Moore and consisted of thirteen reporters from the My Life department, including Plaintiff … When asked why he changed his mind about making an exception for Plaintiff due to her “outstanding ability,” Ryerson responded that he “thought more deeply about the quality of her work and whether somebody else could indeed do the work . . . . [a]nd rethinking what the definition of outstanding ability truly would be.” …

On December 3, 2008, Ryerson, along with a human resources representative, called the employees affected by the RIF to the conference room and told them that their positions were being eliminated. (Id. at 133:1-16). Plaintiff also was handed a letter stating that her position was “being eliminated.”

News release from Guyett’s attorney

Former Indianapolis Star columnist’s age discrimination claim set for jury trial in U.S. District Court on April 24

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – The claim by former Indianapolis Star columnist Susan J. Guyett that her layoff from the newspaper in December 2008 resulted from age discrimination has been scheduled for trial by jury in United States District Court starting April 24. The Indianapolis Star is owned by Gannett Co., Inc.

In December, Chief Judge Richard L. Young denied a motion by the Indianapolis Star to end the case. In his 17-page order, Chief Judge Young said that the explanations by Star Editor and Vice President Dennis Ryerson for terminating Guyett while retaining younger staffers – and replacing her as columnist with a younger reporter – were contradictory and provided evidence supporting her claim sufficient to require a jury’s verdict on the age discrimination claim.

“Plaintiff [Guyett] has cast doubt on the Star’s proffered reasons for the termination, and, accordingly her claim of discrimination is to be determined by a jury,” Chief Judge Young wrote in his order. Entry on Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (“Entry”), p. 16. The claim cites violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

Guyett’s attorney, Kathleen A. DeLaney of DeLaney & DeLaney LLC in Indianapolis, IN said that the evidence showed that the Star artificially structured its layoff criteria to get around the paper’s union contract seniority protections and to hide age discrimination.

“Instead of following the seniority provision in a fair and appropriate manner, the Star attempted to manipulate the provision’s meaning after the fact to justify Ms. Guyett’s termination,” she said. “The Star terminated Ms. Guyett under false pretenses and replaced her with a reporter twenty years younger.”

Susan Guyett wrote the popular “Talk of Our Town” column in the Star, the successor to the “Cityscape” column that she proposed to the Star, from 1999 until December 2008.

At the time of the Star layoffs in December 2008, Guyett was 59 years old and had received positive performance appraisals. In fact, Ryerson had described her as “uniquely qualified” to handle “a very unusual beat,” according to Chief Judge Young’s order. Entry, p. 5.

In his order, Chief Judge Young said, “Replacing Plaintiff with [a 20 years younger reporter] indicates that the news reporters were not indispensible, as Ryerson claimed, and casts doubt on the legitimacy of the Star’s stated reason for Plaintiff’s termination versus reporters in the hard news department with less seniority.” Entry, p. 15.

Chief Judge Young also wrote that excluding certain other reporters from the reduction in force raised suspicions as well. “Ryerson’s continuous narrowing of departments into subdepartments in order to spare less senior reporters from the RIF [reduction in force] is evidence of pretext,” he wrote. Entry, p. 16.

The trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday, April 24, 2012, at 9:00 a.m. at the Birch Bayh Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Indianapolis.

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