A former 9NEWS anchor filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Denver news station and its parent company Thursday, and is seeking a jury trial after the station let her go following her recovery from a stroke.
Kristen Aguirre, one of three Latina journalists who spoke to The Denver Post in April about alleged racial and disability-related discrimination she experienced at 9NEWS, filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal district court for the District of Colorado. Aguirre is represented by Iris Halpern at the Rathod Mohamedbhai law firm.
The lawsuit cites the American with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging 9NEWS management participated in unlawful, discriminatory employment practices that harmed Aguirre by inflicting emotional pain, suffering, and inconvenience and depriving her of financial benefits.
9NEWS general manager Mark Cornetta said the news station needed to read the lawsuit Thursday afternoon before responding.
Aguirre is now a broadcast journalist anchoring and reporting in Asheville, North Carolina.
“What’s become abundantly clear is I can still do this job, but I needed the right team to support me,” Aguirre said in a Denver Post interview. “My life was completely changed after I got fired. I had to leave Denver and make a new life. I’m obligated to support the next person that this happens to because what we know is that every 40 seconds, someone has a stroke and I feel obligated to make sure they have better treatment than what I was faced with.”
Aguirre started at 9NEWS in September 2017, anchoring and reporting on Denver’s Latino population among other community-centric stories.
Aguirre’s struggles with 9NEWS management began after she suffered an ischemic stroke — when a blood clot blocks an artery to the brain — in April 2019, requiring rehabilitation in which she learned to walk again. Aguirre avoided speech impairments, which are common with this type of stroke, but struggled with mobility in her left arm, according to the lawsuit.
Aguirre said she felt supported by her coworkers and staff who came to visit her throughout her rehabilitation. The station’s director of content often texted Aguirre to assure her she had a job at the news station upon her recovery, Aguirre said.
Five months after her stroke, Aguirre started rehearsing at the station’s studio for her return to anchor duties. She made her official public return to 9NEWS in October 2019 by discussing her recovery live on air for World Stroke Day.
“9NEWS used her story to burnish its image as a good Samaritan in the community and spread awareness about strokes,” the lawsuit read. “It seized upon the opportunity to brand itself as a welcoming, inclusive, and flexible company. Management’s attitude towards Ms. Aguirre dramatically changed when Ms. Aguirre began pushing to return to her position as an anchor and reporter and when it became clear that she would need some minor accommodations.”
Aguirre requested two accommodations, according to the lawsuit: to rehearse with fellow anchors and meteorologists when the studio was available and to have a photographer present with her when she reported on stories.
The lawsuit states manager Tim Ryan viewed Aguirre as “a burden and a problem” and that during Aguirre’s anchoring rehearsals, Ryan said her work was “not for them” and that her “inflection was off.”
The critique surprised Aguirre because her speech had not been impacted by the stroke and the only remaining physical injury from the stroke was limited mobility in her left arm which could be seen during her interviews, according to the lawsuit.
“Even though it publicly advertised itself as an accommodating work environment, 9NEWS rejected Ms. Aguirre because the aesthetics of her limited mobility no longer fit within its status quo for news anchors,” the lawsuit states.
Ryan moved Aguirre to a role in which she would pitch and write stories, and record them with the help of a photographer, according to the lawsuit. However, her work was scrutinized by Ryan and supervisor Megan Jurgemeyer to a level she had never experienced, picking apart her voice, her stare into the camera, her writing and challenging why her stories mattered, the lawsuit states.
“These sudden hypercriticisms about Ms. Aguirre’s work product reveal stereotypes and prejudice in response to Ms. Aguirre’s recent health issues, though Ms. Aguirre ironically suffered no speech deficits following her stroke, nor any mental or analytic impairments,” the lawsuit reads.
Aguirre said she felt exploited in February 2020 when 9NEWS purchased a table at a gala fundraiser for Craig Hospital where the stroke survivor did her rehabilitation, commenting that the news station was using her story to improve its public image despite the scrutiny she was facing behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, despite shooting numerous stories upon her return, the station only aired one piece, according to the lawsuit.
In March 2020, Aguirre had her last meeting with Ryan in which she said she was receiving much harsher criticisms than her peers and revealed the anxiety it was causing her. Ryan told Aguirre her reporting didn’t meet their standards for broadcast and that human resources would need to get involved, the lawsuit said.
Aguirre was the first of three Latina reporters — followed by Lori Lizarraga and Sonia Gutierrez– whose contracts at 9NEWS were not renewed around that time.
“Latina news reporters like Ms. Aguirre had their voices and work trivialized in the newsroom,” the lawsuit states. “White reporters were often selected for more prized assignments and placed in the spotlight. Despite the linguistic diversity of the Hispanic community in Colorado, Latina reporters were routinely told to pitch their stories to Telemundo or that the stories they produced were a better fit for Telemundo.”
Up until Aguirre’s contract was terminated, the lawsuit said 9NEWS renewed every other reporter’s contract since at least 2018 and that between at least 2018 and March of 2021, the only reporters whose contracts weren’t renewed were Latina.
After backlash from a piece Lizarraga wrote in Westword in which she shared her experience with discrimination at the station, 9NEWS hired additional reporters of color and announced changes around diversity, according to Aguirre’s lawsuit.
“But such changes were too late for Ms. Aguirre, who had already suffered the consequences of Defendants’ discriminatory misconduct,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges 9NEWS treated Aguirre differently because of her disability, denied reasonable accommodations, retaliated against her because of her disability and discriminated against her based on race.
Aguirre is seeking unspecified financial compensation and a jury trial.
“9NEWS sold this PR campaign about how supportive they were of Kristen once she had the stroke, but aren’t conforming to their own image that they’re propagating and that becomes extremely problematic when it comes to who they serve, the topics they’re covering,” Halpern said in an interview. “It’s that moment of reckoning happening everywhere from sports to Hollywood, and it’s time for news and media that are dominating in the market to reflect upon themselves and see that they’re not embodying the standards that they’re trying to look like they’re promoting to the public.”
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