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Trial opens in discrimination suit against Times

A former reporter says she was forced to retire because of age.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published November 16, 2004

CLEARWATER - Jane Meinhardt's lawyer says she was a skilled St. Petersburg Times reporter who loved covering the police beat, did it well and had stories that often landed on the front page.

A lawyer for the Times says Meinhardt was not aggressive or probing in her work, wrote uninteresting stories and had no passion for the job.

Those competing versions of Meinhardt's career were part of opening statements Monday in her age discrimination lawsuit against the Times. Meinhardt claims she was forced to retire in late 2000 at age 51. She filed suit a year later.

Now a reporter for the Tampa Bay Business Journal , Meinhardt seeks unspecified damages in excess of $15,000. Her lawyers said they plan to ask jurors for punitive damages in a trial expected to last all week in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Meinhardt began her career at the now-defunct Evening Independent , an afternoon newspaper that was owned by the Times Publishing Co., which also owns the Times. When it was closed in 1986, Meinhardt began working for the Times . She worked a total of 25 years at the two papers.

During the last 10 years of her Times career, Meinhardt worked as a police beat reporter in the newspaper's Clearwater bureau.

Catherine Kyres, Meinhardt's attorney, told jurors that Meinhardt was the oldest reporter in a bureau where most reporters were in their 20s. During her career, Kyres said, Meinhardt's supervisors never told her in one document that her performance was unacceptable until the end.

"The Times divorced her for no good reason but for age," Kyres said.

Alison Steele, an attorney representing the Times, told jurors that Meinhardt's performance had been a problem for years. At times, Steele said, Meinhardt did excellent work. But the good work didn't happen often enough, Steele said.

Making note of what she said is the newspaper's national reputation for excellence, Steele said editors "would not jeopardize that to launch a grand conspiracy against Jane Meinhardt."

Paul C. Tash, editor and chairman of Times Publishing, was the first called to testify by Meinhardt's attorneys.

Tash, who was not Meinhardt's direct supervisor, said he was aware of performance problems with her work and had spoken to other editors about it.

"It was essentially lackluster and superficial," he said.

Tash said he has an open door policy and said Meinhardt could have sought him out if she thought she was being discriminated against. He said she didn't.

Asked by one of Meinhardt's attorneys whether the newspaper put "flat, pedestrian" stories on the front page, Tash said, "We try to avoid that."

Steele said Meinhardt was given the choice to retire or continue as a general assignment reporter in the Clearwater bureau under editors' close supervision. Steele described the job as a coveted position.

Kyres said Meinhardt's boss, Joe Childs, told her she would not meet his standards if she continued. Kyres said that left Meinhardt no choice but to retire.

Meinhardt briefly took the stand Monday and told jurors she loved the police beat.

"It was a wonderful beat," said Meinhardt, whose testimony continues today.

[Last modified November 16, 2004, 00:39:15]


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