A former news anchor for Chicago’s Spanish speaking television station is suing her former employer, claiming she was discriminated against and eventually fired for being an alcoholic.
Edna Schmidt brought her suit against Telemundo of Chicago LLC and NBC Universal Media LLC Thursday in Chicago’s federal court. The filing appears to have come in the middle of a special seriesairing during the 10 p.m. newscast on WGBO-TV/Univision, in which she publicly discusses her alcohol addiction.
According to the complaint, Schmidt started working as a newscaster at Telemundo in August 2013, following a six-year stint at Univision, another Spanish speaking television station, as part of a journalism career that began in the late 80s in Puerto Rico.
Schmidt says she left Univision in 2011 to move to Ecuador to focus on her health after a relapse with her alcohol addiction. She was diagnosed as being alcohol dependent in December 2010, the suit states, noting that she received inpatient and outpatient treatment in 2010 and 2011.
During her time in Ecuador, Schmidt says Diana Maldonado, vice president of news at Telemundo and a former colleague of hers at Univision, contacted and began recruiting her to return to Chicago to co-anchor Noticiero Telemundo Chicago with Telemundo, a division of NBCUniversal.
She traveled to Chicago in April 2013 for an interview with Maldonado, who allegedly knew about Schmidt’s dependency on alcohol, and other executives with the station. During the interviews, she contends Maldonado made references to her issue with alcohol, and the others indirectly touched on the topic.
Schmidt says she signed a contract with Telemundo in July 2013 and started working in August 2013. The station promoted her return to TV news and she claims she “poured her heart and soul into her job,” attending community events and pitching numerous ideas while working long hours.
“The stress of her numerous obligations affected Ms. Schmidt profoundly,” the suit states. “Ms. Schmidt developed a viral infection that affected her voice and at times left her unable to speak: unacceptable for a newscaster. Thereafter, she suffered a relapse of her alcohol dependence.”
On Sept. 30, 2013, after anchoring the 5 p.m. news, Schmidt says she left the station to go home for dinner, which included wine, and returned for a 7 p.m. meeting. Following an 8 p.m. interview with U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), the suit alleges Schmidt “took a short break and went home to attempt to treat her viral throat infection. She gargled salt water. She also consumed vodka.”
Schmidt then went back to work to co-anchor the 10 p.m. newscast, during which time she claims her “relapse and condition became obvious to her producer, John Hodai. The impact of her illness, coupled with the alcohol, left her unable to continue on air.”
Hodai allegedly took Schmidt off camera, leaving her co-anchor to host the rest of that night’s newscast alone, and sent her home. The next day, Schmidt asserts she was called into a meeting with several executives, including Chris McDonnell, general manager and president of the station.
When she was asked whether she was under the influence of alcohol during the previous night’s newscast, Schmidt claims in her suit she “was still in denial about the severity of her condition” and makes note that is quite common for people dependent on alcohol to refuse to admit their problem.
Schmidt says she given a verbal warning at the end of the Oct. 1, 2013 meeting and sent home. The next day, the suit states, she met with McDonnell, at his request, for a coffee meeting, during which time she discussed her alcohol problem, said she was in denial about her relapse and then requested some time off to get treatment.
McDonnell, the suit alleges, told Schmidt during their coffee meeting that he had already scheduled an appointment for her at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, “then handed her a blue sheet of paper and said, ‘Here, go so you can feel better.’”
She claims she was later told by another executive not to worry about attending work that day. It wasn’t until she went to the hospital that she asserts she discovered the piece of paper McDonnell gave her was an order for a drug and alcohol screening test.
“When Ms. Schmidt attempted to stop the screening test, a nurse informed her she already consented, despite her mental condition and lack of information regarding the blue sheet of paper,” the suit states, alleging that the only reason to make Schmidt take the test was to confirm her relapse, which it did as it showed positive for alcohol.
Schmidt alleges that while she was ordered to remain off of work, she not given an update on her employments status. On Oct. 3, the complaint states, the defendants called Schmidt’s agents to discuss the situation, and allegedly insulated she was a functioning alcoholic.
The defendants said they would call Schmidt the next day, but she claims they never did. When she finally met with executives with the defendants, she says she was told her condition was interfering with her job and she asked for accommodations so she could obtain treatment.
The next day, on Oct. 8, 2013, Schmidt contends she received a separation agreement showing she was actually terminated four days earlier.
“Defendants terminated Ms. Schmidt due to her alcohol dependence and in retaliation for requesting and requiring a reasonable accommodation for her disability,” the suit states, before going on to rattle off the names of other journalists who have had dependency issues and alleging that their employers made accommodations for them.
Schmidt asserts she “has not been able to find new employment and continues to suffer damages due to Defendants’ conduct.” She says she sought treatment following her termination and receives counseling to deal with her alcohol addiction.
Noting that alcohol dependence is recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Schmidt’s suit includes counts alleging discrimination, retaliation and failure to provide reasonable accommodations in violation of the ADA.
Her suit also alleges breach of contract and disability discrimination under the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA).
On the ADA and IHRA counts, Schmidt is asking for the court to award her monetary damages, including compensatory damages, punitive damages, back pay, front pay, attorneys’ fees and court costs. The suit notes her employment contract provided $200,000 in compensation for her first year.
She also wants the court to award her monetary damages, as well as attorneys’ fees, court costs and interest, on her breach of contract claim.
Schmidt’s suit was submitted by attorneys Kristen E. Prinz, Christina Hynes Mesco and Amit Bindra of The Prinz Law Firm P.C. in Chicago.