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Lawsuit alleges Enquirer layoffs driven by age

By Dave Malaska · February 15th, 2012 · News
news2_nopinIllustration by Julie Hill
As The Enquirer staff braces for another reduction in staff, the paper and its parent company might not yet have seen the full fallout of its decision to cut staff last year. Two of the newspaper’s former editors, Joe Fenton and Cathy Ruetter, have filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the newspaper and The Gannett Co. that soon could snowball into a much larger legal action. 

According to Fenton and Reutter’s attorney, Brian Gillian, the case is headed back to court this week where he will seek a motion for leave to amend. 

“I would anticipate that there will end up being at least three and perhaps as many as four or five additional plaintiffs added to the case,” he says. 

Gillian declined to comment further, adding only that the original complaint spells out his clients’ case “very clearly.” 

In both cases, according to the original complaint, the plaintiffs — along with several other individuals The Enquirer laid off in February 2011 — were targeted because of their seniority. All were nearly 50 years old or older, while younger staffers — some who had been hired long after those let go — were kept on. In some cases, the newspaper ended up hiring younger people to assume their jobs, the complaint states. 

Gannett representatives didn't respond to a request for comment.

Fenton, now an editor for a weekly newspaper in Florida, says it was a tough decision to bring the lawsuit against Gannett. He had worked for the newspaper chain for 14 years and The Enquirer for six years before his termination. 

“There are a lot of emotions going on when you go to work on a Friday morning, you’re editing stuff and going to a 9:30 a.m.

meeting to plan stories for the weekend and there’s a call waiting for you when you get back to your desk,” says Fenton, 57. 

Fenton, who had a hand in two Pulitzer Prize-nominated stories during his time with the newspaper, started getting mixed messages in the fall of 2010, according to the complaint.

As a changing of the guard loomed in the editor’s office at The Enquirer, he was told by his supervisor, Julie Engebrecht, his work was “unsatisfactory” at the same time she said he was a “great editor.” A poor review followed, which led to weekly meetings with Engebrecht. Fenton thought everything was fine until he got that telephone call in February telling him his position as metro editor had been eliminated.

He found another job 14 weeks later, but the layoff took its toll. He and his wife, also a former Enquirer employee, were forced to relocate. His new salary is a fraction of what he made with The Enquirer, and the couple had to sell their Cincinnati home in a bad market, taking a financial hit.

At the same time, Reutter, a seven-year Enquirer veteran, was facing her own turmoil. The former assistant online editor, then 55 years old, was told her entire shift was being eliminated. But younger — and cheaper — staffers doing the same job and hired as recently as earlier in the year, according to the complaint, were kept on. In her exit interview, she says, her seniority was cited as a factor in her termination. Four other colleagues who found themselves without jobs were also older than 50. 

Reutter, still living in Cincinnati, has found another job but declined to comment on the case. 

Their case isn’t the only age discrimination suit Gannett is facing. In January, a federal judge ruled that there was enough evidence in a case filed by former Indianapolis Star lifestyles columnist Susan Guyett to move forward. 

Guyett, 59 at the time of her termination, was let go in 2008 despite an editor describing her as “uniquely qualified” to handle a “very unusual beat.” In discovery, her attorneys found that The Star focused on senior staffers for its cuts.

The Fenton-Reutter case isn’t even unique in Cincinnati. The Enquirer has faced age discrimination charges twice in recent years. Former business reporter James McNair (age 54) settled out of court with the newspaper in 2008 after his termination. Full disclosure: McNair is currently a contributor to CityBeat. 

Four years earlier the newspaper settled an age discrimination lawsuit filed by former editor Larry Nager. Both cases, handled by Gillian’s firm, reached undisclosed settlements. 

As Gannett whittles down its staff — more than 1,200 employees were laid off in 2009, while The Enquirer has parted company with around 150 workers over the past two years — more cases citing age as a primary reason for termination are expected, says Gillian. 

“It’s not uncommon at all with companies that have this large of a reduction in force to target older employees,” he adds.

** View a PDF of the lawsuit filing here.

 
 
 
 

 

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