What to know about ex-TV anchor Sonya Heitshusen's failed discrimination case (2024)

Former WHO-13 news anchor and reporter Sonya Heitshusen has lost her discrimination lawsuit against station owner Nexstar Media Group. Here's what to know.

What happened?

In a trial that started last week, lawyers for Heitshusen, now 56, contended the Des Moines TV station laid her off in 2020 because of her age and gender, citing her documented record of top performance. Nexstar countered that she was included in a group eight employees of varying ages and gender being laid off because her pay was high ― $120,000 a year ― and her anchor role was less essential than those of other anchors.

The jury's verdict came after closing arguments Wednesday, in which Heitshusen's attorney, Lawrence Dempsey asked it to grant more than $1.5 million in damages, including $92,863 in back pay, $800,000 for emotional distress and $650,00 in future emotional damages.

Who is Sonya Heitshusen?

Heitshusen spent a combined total of nearly 28 years as a reporter at WOI-TV, then as a reporter and news anchor at WHO-TV. During her time at the stations she won numerous awards.

After her layoff, Heitshusen ran for Iowa House District 28 as a Democrat in 2022. She lost to former U.S. Rep. David Young, a Republican. She then went to work as communications director for Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand's office.

Why did Sonya Heitshusen leave WHO-TV?

Heitshusen told The Des Moines Register in 2020 that she had received a mandatory 120-day notification that her contract would not be renewed.

Heitshusen worked her final day at the station on July 31, 2020. She was at the time the station's oldest female anchor at 52.

Why did Heitshusen sue WHO-TV and its parent company Nexstar Media?

Heitshusen in 2021 filed her age and gender discrimination lawsuit against Nexstar Media, which bought WHO-TV in 2019, as well as News Director Rod Peterson and General Manager Bobby Totsch.

Nexstar has faced other lawsuits in recent years from female reporters and anchors. In 2019 about 80% of its managers were men, according to the Associated Press.

Heitshusen's lawsuit contended she was "thrown out to pasture" because she was no longer seen as camera-worthy after years in which she saw her male colleagues receive better treatment from management. Before the trial, one of Heitshusen's attorneys, Thomas Newkirk, said few women over age 50 are on Nexstar newscasts.

Dempsey, also representing Heitshusen, told jurors during closing arguments in her trial Wednesday that Heitshusen consistently received better performance reviews than other male and female WHO anchors and reporters. He pointed to station documents preceding her 2020 termination touting the station's "hip young relatable talent," and said that in the three years after her departure, WHO hired 12 much younger reporters and anchors, eight of them women.

WHO marketing materials from 2015, 2016 and 2019 placed an emphasis on hiring young reporters and anchors to cater to a target audience of young parents, Dempsey said.

"Her age was absolutely a factor," Dempsey said of Heitshusen's termination. The case was not about a monetary amount, Dempsey said, but about "the anguish caused when they took away her identity."

What did Heitshusen say during the trial?

Heitshusen testified that Peterson suggested the station may have an off-camera job for her, working on its website, but it would come with a pay reduction.

"It was like a punch to the gut," Heitshusen testified. "It meant I was good enough to work behind the scenes, I was good enough to work on the web, but we don’t want you in front of the camera."

At times Heitshusen teared up on the witness stand as she spoke about her love for her job and the sense of purpose it gave her.

She also testified that Peterson had a pattern of making comments about her age and weight.

"Men are often allowed to age on television, get gray hair, maybe be a little heavier than they were at 20. Women aren’t afforded that luxury," she said. "Women are expected to be not only professional, but beautiful and young and glamorous."

What did Heitshusen's former co-anchor say?

Heitshusen's longtime friend and current WHO anchor Erin Kiernan also testified about comments from Peterson on female employees' appearance, and like Heitshusen said WHO gave more recognition and perks to male anchors and reporters.

"Several years ago, there were promos running for some of my male colleagues’ awards, and in the same timeframe and even same organization that bestows these awards, I had won awards, Sonya had won awards, and there were not promos running for what we had earned," Kiernan testified.

What has WHO-TV said?

Station executives and attorneys argued throughout the trial that Heitshusen was let go as part of broader layoffs based on her higher compensation and less-essential work duties than other anchors.

At the time, Heitshusen made $120,000 per year. She was the third-highest paid newsroom employee, and co-anchored the 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. newscasts, but not the "prime time" 6 p.m. or 10 p.m. slots, Nexstar attorney Chris Hoyme said during opening statements Feb. 28.

Heitshusen was "a very good anchor and reporter," as reflected in her performance reviews, Hoyme said. But given her salary and the newscasts she handled, she was considered an extra anchor, Hoyme said.

During the 2020 layoffs in which Heitshusen was let go eight employees were terminated, six of them men, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, Hoyme said.

"This difficult decision was not focused on performance, experience and qualifications," Hoyme said. "All the news anchors were good performers and qualified for their positions. Ultimately, Sonya Heitshusen was chosen to be part of a reduction in force along with seven other employees within the station."

During closing arguments Wednesday, he said the case was "common sense."

"This case is about dollars and cents. You’ve heard testimony from various witnesses, including Bobby Totsch, that he selected Ms Heitshusen for the reduction in force because she made a lot of money, $120,000, and her role was redundant," Hoyme said. "… By making that selection, he was able to keep several other employees. That’s it. It’s not a Hollywood story, it’s not a courtroom drama, it might be kind of boring, but that’s what happened."

Philip Joens covers public safety, retail, real estate and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-284-8184, pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.

William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at wrmorris2@registermedia.com or 715-573-8166.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Sonya Heitshusen: What to know about her lawsuit against Nexstar

What to know about ex-TV anchor Sonya Heitshusen's failed discrimination case (2024)


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