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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 3, 2003

Reporter settles with TV station on dismissal

By David Waite
Advertiser Courts Writer

Two former KHON TV executives and the company that owns the television station have settled a lawsuit brought against them by former KHON reporter Mary Zanakis for $175,000.

Zanakis had claimed that KHON's former news director Jim McCoy and former station manager Kent Baker violated her employment rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act by essentially demoting her when she went on maternity leave in December 1998.

Baker and McCoy denied the allegations, saying Zanakis' position as producer and reporter of the medical news segment of the station's morning news show had been eliminated and that Zanakis was fired in June 1999 as a result of budget cuts and a decline in the quality of her work.

But a federal court jury agreed with Zanakis and on Jan. 27 found that her taking maternity leave was a contributing factor in the station's decision to fire her. The jury awarded Zanakis $87,000 in damages.

Zanakis said at the time that she would seek an additional $770,000 for wages she would have earned if she had continued working at KHON at the $73,000 a year salary she was paid before she was fired.

But federal Judge David Ezra last month ruled that Zanakis was not entitled to the loss of future wages because she accepted a news reporter job with KITV in February 2000 for $45,000 a year. Ezra said Zanakis did not apply to any other Honolulu TV stations or newspapers and that the salary she accepted at KITV was a reflection of her value in the news reporter market.

If her skills were valued at $73,000, then another employer would have offered her a job at that salary, Ezra concluded.

Ezra also found that McCoy and Baker had "reasonable grounds for believing that there decision (to fire Zanakis) was not a violation of (the) Family Medical and Leave Act."

On Thursday, Thomas Pico Jr., Zanakis' former husband and her attorney in the case, and Bruce Voss, the lawyer who represented the station's owner as well as Baker and McCoy, agreed on a total settlement of $175,000. That amount included the cost of attorney fees sought by Pico.

McCoy said he does not believe Zanakis' rights were violated and that the jury awarded her the $87,000 "out of sympathy." He said Ezra's decision not to award Zanakis lost future wages was "a vindication" for him and Baker.

"It was a business decision to let her go and to hire Tina Shelton," McCoy said.

Voss called Ezra's decision not to award loss of future wages "clearly correct under the law and the facts presented in the case."

"There was never any evidence that McCoy and Baker discriminated against Zanakis in retaliation for her taking leave under the FMLA," Voss said.

Pico said he disagrees with Ezra's decision on the loss of future wages issue, but said it was "not a big blow to us."

"Mary most of all wanted to establish that her FMLA rights had been violated, and the jury agreed with us that they were," Pico said.

The $87,000 in damages that the jury awarded Zanakis was "icing on the cake," Pico said, even if Ezra denied the much larger amount in future lost earnings.

He called the case a "very difficult" and hard-fought one.

"For years, the KHON attorneys were telling Mary she had no case at all. But all along, she believed her rights had been violated and worked hard to get that established," Pico said.

Reach David Waite at dwaite@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8030.