Michael was let go in May, along with anchors Sandra Mitchell and Sharon Tay and meteorologist Garth Kemp, as part of a broader newsroom layoff. ViacomCBS has engaged in several rounds of cutbacks at various divisions in the wake of its merger.
In a statement, KCBS said the staff cuts were caused by the pandemic and by “the ongoing and transformative changes in the media industry.”
“These were difficult decisions to make and we understand Jeff Michael’s disappointment over the elimination of his position,” the station said. “That said, we firmly believe his claims are entirely without merit and we are prepared to defend against these accusations.”
Michael joined the station in 2017 after 19 years at the local Fox affiliate, and was anchoring the evening newscasts.
According to the lawsuit, Michael was initially hired as the morning news anchor. He was paid $260,000 a year, with an increase to $275,000 in the third and final year of the contract.
The contract states that if Michael were reassigned from the morning to the evening newscasts, he would be entitled to renegotiation. According to the suit, Michael was moved to the evening in October 2018, but the station never got around to renegotiating.
The suit states that Michael should have been entitled to a multiyear deal with a considerable increase in pay, to bring him to parity with his co-anchor and with his predecessors, Rick Garcia and Paul Magers. However, when Michael approached the general manager about this in January 2019, he was told to wait until after the sweeps period.
The general manager, Steve Mauldin, then announced that he would be leaving the station, and would not have the authority to negotiate a new deal. Michael alleges that the stress of waiting for a new contract was so severe that his news director had to take him to Huntington Hospital in April 2019 because he thought he was having a heart attack. He went to the emergency room and stayed there overnight.
The new general manager, Jay Howell, refused to sign a new agreement, according to the suit. The suit alleges that Howell had a discriminatory motive due to Michael’s health issues.
“Because Plaintiff did not enjoy the benefit of a renegotiated Agreement (which would have extended the term of his employment), Plaintiff was thereafter callously discarded by CBS, and his employment terminated in May 2020 — despite having continued to work to inform the public during the COVID crisis, at great risk to his life and personal safety,” the suit states.
The suit alleges breach of contract and employment discrimination.