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Former Chicago radio host’s $10M defamation suit dismissed

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CHICAGO - A federal judge has dismissed Chicago radio host Melissa McGurren’s defamation lawsuit against her former employer, Hubbard Radio Chicago, whom she alleged falsely branded her a liar while responding to her harassment claims against former co-host Eric Ferguson.

McGurren brought the $10 million claim in October in response to an email in which the company told staff it had “thoroughly investigated” her U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against Ferguson and did “not agree with Melissa’s characterization of events.”

McGurren alleged the statement attacked her credibility and integrity and that a thorough review “was never conducted or, at a minimum, was a sham investigation,” according to her lawsuit.

In his recent written ruling, Judge Ronald Guzman found Hubbard vice president Jeff England’s comments were non-actionable statements of opinion and did not fall into any of the five categories that Illinois law deems to be defamatory.

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The judge granted Hubbard’s motion to dismiss McGurren’s lawsuit on March 1. Her attorney, Carmen D. Caruso, said in a statement he is disappointed in the court’s ruling and is “reviewing the path forward. And we are confident of our client’s underlying claims against Hubbard and look forward to our hearing in arbitration.”

Attorneys for Hubbard, meanwhile, quickly seized on the ruling as a victory. On Friday, they asked another federal judge presiding over an earlier defamation lawsuit against Hubbard to adopt Guzman’s reasoning and dismiss that claim as well.

In that earlier federal lawsuit, former assistant producer Cynthia DeNicolo alleged Hubbard defamed her in statements that it “found no evidence to corroborate allegations of illegal workplace conduct” after she accused Ferguson of coercing her into sexual acts in 2004.

DeNicolo also has filed a separate lawsuit against Ferguson in Cook County court. Ferguson was sidelined from the morning program he led for 25 years in late October, shortly after the Tribune reported that DeNicolo had sued him earlier in the year.

More allegations against Ferguson followed from three other women who used to work at The Mix, including McGurren, who said in court filings she left the show after Ferguson created an unbearably hostile work environment. She and the other women allege management protected him because of his popularity.

Ferguson has not spoken publicly about the allegations, but through his lawyers and in legal filings he has denied inappropriate workplace conduct.

Station management initially said Ferguson would be off the air through October. Then, in late October, a statement from Ferguson was circulated to station employees announcing he planned to “step away from the show” and felt “confident that at the end of the day the courts will rule and the right outcome will prevail.”

WTMX afternoon host Chris Petlak succeeded Ferguson as host of the morning show in January.

DeNicolo contends Ferguson orchestrated her dismissal in May 2020 using COVID-19 as a pretext. Her suit against Ferguson states that in 2004 she stopped providing oral sex in response to his demands, for which he allegedly used the code words “I need a backrub.” She said Ferguson taunted her with the phrase throughout her tenure at the station.

In her federal defamation claim, DeNicolo included a written statement from a former sales employee who said Ferguson groped the employee at WTMX’s 2003 Christmas party in full view of her husband and co-workers.

McGurren worked for The Mix for more than two decades. Her abrupt departure from the airwaves stunned her fans in December 2020. When she left, Hubbard said in a public statement it was surprised and disappointed she had declined a contract extension — a comment McGurren disputes.

In court filings, McGurren said Ferguson demeaned, harassed and ridiculed her. She described him as “a serial abuser of women” and said management failed to respond, then forced her out when she demanded that the alleged harassment stop.

McGurren accused the company in the defamation suit of intending to injure her and jeopardize her new career. She now co-hosts a morning show on the Audacy-owned station WUSN-FM 99.5.

Her lawsuit included an affidavit from a former Mix colleague, Jennifer Ashrafi, who went by Jennifer Roberts on air and said Ferguson’s “abusive behavior is open and known by all at The Mix.”

McGurren argued Hubbard had ample notice of Ferguson’s alleged conduct and thus knowingly made the false statement that it disagreed with her “characterization of events” regarding her EEOC complaint. In granting Hubbard’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Guzman ruled the company’s emailed statement to employees did not defame her.

“Taken in context, a reasonable reader would not understand the internal email by England to have been made for the purpose of causing harm to (McGurren’s) reputation or lowering her standing in the community, but rather to acknowledge the existence of the EEOC claim, convey to the radio station’s employees that the matter is being investigated, and indicate that the radio station does not agree with (McGurren’s) interpretation,” the judge wrote.

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