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At age 72, Frank Snepp is quietly having a remarkable year and now could be on the verge of a trial against NBCUniversal.
Snepp was once an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency whose Vietnam-focused book Decent Interval triggered a dispute with the U.S. government over whether he could publish without pre-approval. The case resulted in a landmark 1980 Supreme Court ruling upholding his confidentiality obligations over the First Amendment rights of a whistleblower. The decision was leaned upon by a retired naval officer who sued over Citizenfour, the Edward Snowden doc that won an Oscar for Best Documentary Film. At the Academy Awards earlier this year, Citizenfour beat out Last Days in Vietnam, which featured Snepp as one of the primary interviewees.
The interesting year for Snepp may have started with connections to two celebrated documentary films, but it may end with a notable trial.
After working at the CIA, Snepp became an investigative journalist, breaking news about the Iran Contra scandal, Monica Lewinski, SEAL Team 6, and more. In his career, he’s won many prizes including a Peabody.
In 2006, he was hired by LA’s KNBC as a field producer. Two years later, he was re-hired as a content producer. Despite his career achievements, Snepp was terminated in 2012.
In a lawsuit against KNBC, NBCUniversal and Comcast, Snepp asserts that the reason for his firing was his advanced age. He was terminated just six weeks after NBC resolved a lawsuit with AEG stemming from his investigative piece about fire protection failure issues at the Staples Center. He alleges a new team had come in to lead news at the NBC station and that he was subjected to comments from superiors like “some people just see you as a grumpy old man who oughta just quit.”
The defendants brought a summary judgment motion that argued that to establish discriminatory motive, Snepp had to show a younger person replaced him.
Judge Stephen Moloney responded that it’s not clear “whether replacement by a younger person is a required element of the prima facie case” and further rules that Snepp has raised a triable issue over the reasons for his termination.
NBC is arguing Snepp was fired for inadequate performance while Snepp alleges such a review was a pretext.
According to the judge’s ruling: “Here, Plaintiff has submitted evidence that suggests age-animus based on the believed reason why Plaintiff was removed as an on-air commentator and new leadership wanting to phase out older employees. Additionally, Plaintiff has submitted evidence of ageist-statements that Plaintiff should quit or retire because of his age. Defendants argue that the ageist-statements are stray remarks; however, the probative value of challenged remarks turns on the facts of each case.”
Maloney does allow NBC to escape Snepp’s claim for retaliation. The judge finds there’s no evidence presented that the decision makers knew that Snepp made had made complaints to the station’s human resources department.
Nevertheless, represented by Howarth & Smith, Snepp advances on the larger discrimination allegation. A trial is currently scheduled for November 2.
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