LOS ANGELES (CN) – Veteran journalist Frank Snepp’s wrongful termination trial continued Monday with a former NBC Los Angeles producer testifying that employees over 50 were put under “intense scrutiny.”
Snepp is seeking compensatory damages and punitive damages for wrongful termination as an investigative producer and reporter at LA NBC affiliate KNBC-TV, or NBC 4, when he was 69 years old. Opening statements in his jury trial began last week in Superior Court Judge Stephen Moloney’s courtroom.
The Emmy and Peabody award-winning journalist sued NBCUniversal Media and its Los Angeles affiliate last year, alleging that he lost his job after he complained of age discrimination and ageism.
In morning testimony, former NBC Los Angeles news writer and assignment editor Lew Rothbart, 70, took the stand and told the 12 members of the jury that he had worked at the affiliate from 1968 to 1971, and again from 1980 until 2014.
During his 34 years at the station he worked as a news writer, assignment editor and segment producer, he said.
After NBC Los Angeles severed union ties Rothbart said the corporation changed his title to content producer. But he testified that his job as a producer on the morning show, with a shift that began at midnight and ended 8:00 a.m., remained the same – even as his workload increased.
He told Snepp’s attorney Jessica Walsh that he took involuntary termination in Sept 2014 after managers put him on a performance improvement plan and warned him that there were instances where he did not get stories on air quickly enough and did not sufficiently rewrite stories for later segments.
“I was basically told here’s a buyout package, take it or leave it,” Rothbart told Walsh.
He said he did not want to resign and was “surprised” by the move and felt he had been set up.
“Several of my fellow employees 50 and above were put under increased scrutiny,” Rothbart said.
During cross-examination, NBC attorney Manuel Cachan of Munger Tolles asked Rothbart if he had been caught sleeping on the job by vice president of news Todd Mokhtari at the end of one of his graveyard shifts.
Rothbart said he was not the first to doze off on the nighttime shift but said the incident happened after his tasks were complete. He also challenged the characterization that Mokhtari had to shake him awake, stating that he had only closed his eyes.
Cachan asked why Rothbart did not complain when the incident ended up in his file. Rothbart said he did not feel he could enter into a battle with a news director.
“Who would I complain to, the fox guarding the chicken coop?” Rothbart said.
In the afternoon, the jury viewed Mokhtari’s video deposition in which he explained why he had fired Snepp.
“Plaintiff had created his own job,” Mokhtari said, adding that Snepp conducted his own investigations outside of KNBC’s investigative unit “and turned very few stories.”
Mokhtari, who said he had been brought in from KIRO-TV in Seattle to make the station more competitive, said that Snepp was “reluctant to take feedback on script approval” which “delayed getting stories on the air.”
Snepp’s attorney Ames Smith of Howarth & Smith asked if there had been any positive comments about Snepp’s work from June 2011, when Mokhtari was hired, until Snepp was fired in October 2012.
“I’m not aware of any positive comments,” Mokhtari said during the Oct. 16 video deposition.
Snepp and Mokhtari were both present in the courtroom on Monday.
Outside the courtroom, Snepp told Courthouse News that he could not comment during the trial. Attorneys on both sides also declined to comment.
The case is expected to go to the jury next week with proceedings set to continue Tuesday morning.
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