Dorian Hargrove, shown in 2017 when he was a San Diego Reader reporter, says NBC San Diego shamed and punished him unfairly. Photo by Ken Stone

On May 2, Dorian Hargrove tweeted he was “super excited” about leaving NBC San Diego and “even happier” to reveal he was joining rival CBS8 (just 3.4 miles away).

Dorian Hargrove suit against NBC Universal (PDF)

The award-winning journalist’s joy came into sharper focus just over a month later.

On June 6, Hargrove filed suit against NBC Universal, the parent of his old station, KNSD, alleging “constructive termination” by NBC. Also named as defendants are his former bosses, Greg Dawson and Chuck Westerheide.

Through his lawyer, Marlea Francesca Dell’Anno, Hargrove, 45, seeks a jury trial in San Diego Superior Court, claiming NBC7/39 violated state anti-discrimination laws and ran a hostile workplace.

He’s asking for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages along with attorneys fees in a case assigned to Judge Timothy Taylor.

Dawson, in a legal filing, called the suit “frivolous, unfounded and unreasonable” — and asked for an award of attorneys fees and costs “upon judgment in [his] favor.”

A longtime writer for San Diego Reader, Hargrove became a story himself after he was publicly denounced by Mayor Todd Gloria and City Attorney Mara Elliott for reporting the infamous “Footnote 15,” which they said was fabricated.

In September 2020, amid a heated mayor race, Hargrove revealed a leaked memo by outside-the-city lawyers looking into the controversial city purchase of the ill-fated 101 Ash Street property.

“Footnote 15 … raised questions about whether now-Mayor Todd Gloria withheld information about the Ash Street deal from the public and fellow council members when it was approved in 2016,” the Union-Tribune reported. “He has said he did not.”

The footnote also said Elliott helped shield Gloria from investigators for Burke, Williams & Sorensen, the Los Angeles law firm hired by the city in 2019 to examine the transaction and write the report, the U-T said.

On Friday, a spokeswoman for Mayor Gloria told Times of San Diego: “In no way did the footnote suggest then-Councilmember Gloria withheld information from the public or other [council members].”

The spokeswoman, Rachel Laing, added that the footnote said it might have been helpful to talk with Gloria to learn what he knew, “but did not even insinuate he was culpable in the Faulconer Administration’s failure to fully inform council about key aspects of the deal. It said Mara blocked an interview, which she has denied.”

In the wake of official pushback, KNSD retracted the story and suspended Hargrove and investigative journalist Tom Jones.

Answers by NBC San Diego, Greg Dawson and Chuck Westerheide (PDF)

Hargrove went back to work, but hired a lawyer to sue City Attorney Elliott, saying she violated his First Amendment rights by pressuring NBC San Diego.

But in mid-December 2021, federal Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo granted the city of San Diego’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Now Hargrove is going after his old employer.

The suit says that on May 6, 2021, NBC San Diego harassed Hargrove because of his disability (effects of a horrific brain injury in 2009), age, family care or medical leave “and as a result … was reprimanded, suspended, demoted … [and] denied work opportunities or assignments.”

When Hargrove returned to NBC, the suit says, station Vice President Dawson “imposed new restrictions on Mr. Hargrove’s previously imposed discipline, most notably prohibiting Mr. Hargrove … from submitting Public Records Act requests to the city — even in his capacity of a private citizen.”

Hargrove complained about the restricted access to city government, “but his complaint fell on deaf ears,” the suit says.

By contrast, his NBC colleague Tom Jones, who helped on the 101 Ash story (and also was suspended), returned to NBC to a better position than Hargrove, the suit says.

“Instead, Mr. Hargrove was told he had to send his pitches to the news managers, who repeatedly ignored them,” the suit says. “On at least one occasion, Mr. Hargrove was reprimanded for a story that he pitched.”

Hargrove eventually complained to NBC’s Ethics Department about what he called unfair treatment, the suit says, but “the adverse actions intensified.”

At one point, according to the 15-page complaint, Dawson compared Hargrove to a “product defect” similar to one found in manufacturing and that his previous stories should be reviewed.

“Mr. Hargrove objected to being called a ‘product defect’ while HR Director [Nirupama] Hedge sat silently and did not say a word to Dawson about name-calling an employee in such an abusive manner,” the suit says.

Being labeled a “defect” disturbed Hargrove deeply, “sending him into a dark place emotionally” and — unable to take any more abuse and humiliation — forcing him to go on mental health leave as a “result of his severe depression.”

(While on leave, Hargrove learned that his team had won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an online series on human trafficking. “In Dawson’s congratulatory message to the newsroom, Dawson noticeably left Hargrove out,” the suit says.)

Hargrove and his attorney haven’t responded to requests for comment, with Dell’Anno (who won her own recent case against the City Attorney’s Office) saying she couldn’t address questions until this weekend.

One question is: Why does the lawsuit note that Dawson is married to San Diego Deputy City Attorney Joan Dawson, “who works in the Civil Division of the City Attorney’s office closely with City Attorney Mara Elliott”?

For its part, KNSD declined to comment on the case. NBC lawyers Adrienne L. Conrad, Jaclyn M. Reinhart and Raina Sharma didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Notice of right to sue from state DFEH (PDF)

But legal filings last month reveal how the station, Dawson and Westerheide (now a spokesman for the County of San Diego) are responding to the suit.

“Plaintiff failed to exhaust the administrative remedies required under any and all applicable state and/or federal laws, including, but not limited to, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and California Government Code sections 12960 and 12965,” says a 10-page answer to the complaint on Aug. 17.

In fact, Hargrove obtained a “right-to-sue” notice from the state June 6.

The answer also argues that Hargrove’s claims are barred “by the applicable statute of limitations.”

But the state told Hargrove’s lawyer: “The employee’s statute of limitations to file a civil action, including for all related claims not arising under section 12945.2, is tolled from DFEH’s receipt of a mediation request under section 12945.21 until mediation is complete.”

On Aug. 22, Westerheide said through his own attorney, Noah J. Woods, that “NBC did not receive notice from Plaintiff that any employee or managing agent of Defendant had allegedly engaged in any discriminatory, harassing or retaliatory actions against Plaintiff based upon his physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, age, or for any other reason and Plaintiff unreasonably failed to complain of any alleged unlawful conduct to take advantage of the preventative or corrective opportunities available and/or otherwise avoid harm.”

No trial date has been set.

Updated at 2:41 p.m. Sept. 16, 2022