Disclosure: Sven Sundgaard is a meteorologist with Bring Me The News, providing regular weather updates. This story is based upon information contained in the lawsuit, which is now a matter of public record, and not upon any conversations Bring Me The News has had with Sven.
Meteorologist Sven Sundgaard has filed a lawsuit against TEGNA Inc., alleging discrimination in the wake of his firing by KARE 11 last spring.
Sundgaard filed the lawsuit in late March, claiming sexual orientation discrimination, hostile work environment and reprisal in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act and defamation in violation of state law during his 14 years at the station.
He was fired on May 1, 2020, after sharing a social media post that referred to protesters to Michigan's "Stay at Home" order as "Nazi sympathizers" and "armed extremists." After being on the receiving end of threats and homophobic abuse, he was fired despite the suit saying other KARE 11 employees have posted political commentary on their social media pages.
Sundgaard seeks back pay and front pay, citing he made $160,000 annually, totaling approximately $320,000.
He also seeks punitive damages up to $25,000, emotional distress damages, and treble damages (compensatory damages up to three times the actual damages sustained).
In a statement sent to Bring Me The News, KARE 11 said: "KARE 11 denies Mr. Sundgaard’s claims. One of our core values as a station is inclusion. We are committed to maintaining a respectful workplace free from all forms of discrimination and harassment.”
In a statement issued via his lawyers, Sundgaard said: "I've been overwhelmed and forever grateful for the outpouring of support I have received over the last year.
"I hope to continue to receive your support as I embark upon this difficult journey that will highlight the unfair treatment to which I was subjected. While a lawsuit is not ideal for anyone, I believe it is important to take action to prevent what happened to me from happening to others. I do this also, for the countless young people who have thanked me for being an openly gay man, making it easier for them to be true to themselves. My late mom always taught me to stick up for myself."
Comments about sexuality, religion
Sundgaard worked at KARE 11, which is owned by TEGNA, from 2006 until May 1, 2020, and in the suit said he wasn't initially open about his sexual orientation but start to disclose the fact he is gay with some coworkers in 2007 or 2008.
And then in 2010, Sundgaard converted to Judaism, which he was open about at work but was occasionally asked questions about his faith that "left him uncomfortable," citing one time when the news director, Jane Helmke (who left KARE in December) allegedly asked him if as a Jew he still believed Jesus was the Messiah.
The lawsuit said the "invasive" comment made him uncomfortable and he was unsure how to respond.
The lawsuit cites a 2007 incident in which Sundgaard appeared on the cover of Lavender to promote Dining Out for Life, which benefits the Aliveness Project (an organization that helps people living with HIV/AIDS).
When the then-news director Tom Lindner saw the cover, the lawsuit alleges he called Sundgaard and was "irate," demanding, "What are people going to think?" Sundgaard reported this to human resources but never received any follow-up.
Sundgaard claims he was also the subject of a "hostile email" in March 2011 sent by Lindner following a promotional photoshoot he did, which was copied to "many coworkers." The suit claims he subsequently argued with Lindner in his office, alleging that at the end he was told: "Get the f*** out of my office!"
Lindner was fired at KARE's news director after 15 years in the role a month later. Sundgaard had again reported the incident to HR, but didn't hear anything back.
Sundgaard highlights several other occasions when he believes he was treated differently due to his sexual orientation and based on his prior reports of hostility and harassment, including being rejected requests to attend conferences so he could maintain his status with the American Meteorological Society, and claims he was forced to pay for his own travel expenses to attend conferences, unlike his coworkers.
Warnings in 2017
In August 2017, the suit says Sundgaard requested time off to appear on the panel at a National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association conference. Around the same time, his mother – who was suffering from late-stage cancer – was due to have her birthday, which Sundgaard feared would be her last.
He was denied the request to attend the panel as KARE 11 "not have the funds or staffing to send Sundgaard," and it had "already arranged for another member of KARE 11's on-air talent, a woman, to attend the conference."
After appealing the decision and offering to pay his own way to attend, as well as suggesting staffing solutions to cover for him, he was again denied, with a "frustrated" Sundgaard suggesting to Helmke he would speak to someone in TEGNA's corporate office.
"At the same time, Helmke told Sundgaard that there was not enough staff to approve his request for time off to be with his mother. Sundgaard reiterated his need for family leave to be with his dying mother and for time off to attend the conference," the suit says.
Less than 10 days later, Sundgaard was issued a warning by TEGNA for "alleged insubordinate and unacceptable behavior directed toward Helmke." The same warning states that if he needed leave to spend time with his mother, it would need to be requested 30 days in advance "unless it was an emergency."
In an email responding to the warning, the suit says:
"Sundgaard reported that he had experienced 'mistreatment, double standards, and singling out' throughout his tenure at the station. Sundgaard noted that he received this warning only after he brought up concerns about diversity and inclusion and after the scheduling issue was resolved. Sundgaard suggested that the warning was an attempt by Helmke to intimidate him out of reporting up the chain, including to TEGNA corporate."
He was eventually approved to attend the conference, but his mother died just hours before he was due to leave, so was ultimately unable to attend.
Sundgaard received a "final written warning" in November 2017, after he spoke on a newscast about whether Minnesota or Wisconsin had more lakes, and at the end of the story, commented "with a statement to the effect of, 'Hmm, I guess size really does matter.'"
"According to the warning, Sundgaard's 'sexually loaded' comment was 'disrespectful' to the audience and the brand and created an uncomfortable environment for his cohosts," the suit says, despite the station running two online stories within the next two months that included "Size Matters" in the headline.
In a meeting that followed the warning, Sundgaard told TEGNA HR Director Nikki Mills he was "not going to be treated and terminated like Kim Insley," according to the suit. Insley was fired in 2017, with the lawsuit noting that her departure led to speculation it was age-related, though this has not been confirmed.
In October 2018, Sundgaard retweeted a post by "Meet The Press" host Chuck Todd that was critical of President Donald Trump, with Sundgaard commenting: "It's time to stop making excuses for Trump & fascism - we're really in a test of our democracy & facts & science."
What followed was an "amicable" conversation with Director of Content Stuart Boslow, in which Sundgaard was told he wasn't being formally warned, but in which Boslow had been instructed to talk to him about his tweeted.
But an email Boslow sent to superiors after the meeting "mischaracterized" the meeting, and suggested Sundgaard had accepted he had violated station policy in the past.
The lawsuit claims KARE 11's social media policy is inconsistently applied, forbidding them from "posting, reposting, sharing, or retweeting anything that could compromise TEGNA's reputation," but notes that "management, as well as on-air talent, have repeatedly violated such policies through their own posts and by 'liking' others' posts indicating their approval," including posts criticizing, among others, Trump, Gov. Tim Walz, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, and Nancy Pelosi.
In April 2020, Sundgaard reposted a post from his rabbi, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, that made the "Nazi sympathizer" and "armed extremists" comments regarding protesters in Michigan, which the suit says was based upon "anti-Semitic protest signs" at the demonstration.
The post didn't attract much attention originally, but it was then picked up by the ring-wing outlet Alpha News, which was critical of Sundgaard, and prompted him to be on the receiving end of a "slew of threats and brazenly homophobic comments" on social media.
There were also calls from conservatives including former 2nd District Congressman Jason Lewis, who called on April 30 for KARE 11 to fire him.
KARE 11 called Sundgaard, who said that "as Jewish men, Sundgaard and Rabbi Latz are sensitive to these issues, and Rabbi Latz does not use the word 'nazi' lightly."
The lawsuit states: "He explained that the issue Rabbi Latz's post addressed was not the protests condemning the stay-at-home orders, but the protest signs displaying swastikas and comparing Jews to rats captioned with the statement, 'that's the real plague.'"
The lawsuit continues:
"Sundgaard expressed regret about the repost and told Boslow and Mills he would be sticking to posting about weather from then on. He told them he never wanted to be targeted by these groups again and he was willing to discuss a remedy that would stop the hostility."
The next day, Sundgaard was fired, with TEGNA General Manager John Remes claiming Sundgaard's repost allegedly violated TEGNA policies.