Former 10Weather WTSP chief meteorologist Jim Van Fleet has filed a lawsuit against his former TV station and two managers, claiming two managers there conspired to oust him from the job.
He claims the managers defamed him by spreading false rumors that he was using drugs and set him up for disciplinary action so they could name meteorologist Bobby Deskins as his replacement.
The lawsuit filed last month in Pinellas County Circuit Court describes Van Fleet as an "exemplary" employee since signing a five-year contract with the station in 2011. But four years into the contract — and one month after a positive performance review conducted by general manager Elliot Wiser — things started to go south for Van Fleet, the suit says.
According to the lawsuit, Wiser and news manager Robert Clinkingbeard in March invited news anchor Dion Lim into Clinkingbeard's office and pressed her: Is Van Fleet on drugs?
"Just say the word; if you just say the word 'drugs,' then we can do something about it; and you'll be a leader, and a good friend," Lim was told, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says the managers never took up the issue with Van Fleet or had any evidence to suspect Van Fleet of drug use. And yet, according to the lawsuit, the managers circulated rumors about the meteorologist.
The next month, the lawsuit alleges Wiser and Clinkingbeard "set up" Van Fleet for a two-week suspension for insubordination. Van Fleet said he was working at the station one day when he asked if he should work from his usual spot. The suit said he was later told to leave the weather center because he could be seen during a broadcast.
According to a memo included in the lawsuit, Clinkingbeard wrote that Van Fleet responded: "I'm just doing my f------ job."
It says that, for those reasons, he was suspended. After serving the suspension, Van Fleet was notified that his contract, which ran through this month, would not be renewed.
Later this summer, the lawsuit says an executive producer, Melissa Dart, provided a report to Clinkingbeard and Wiser that intentionally mischaracterized a weather team conference call Van Fleet missed. He contends he didn't participate because he wasn't notified.
Wiser was forced to resign in September, the lawsuit claims. He did not return requests for comment.
Van Fleet was fired days after, weeks short of completing his contract. The lawsuit says Van Fleet was "forcibly escorted out of the building in plain sight for all to see."
Deskins declined comment. Calls to the CBS affiliate for comment were directed to Clinkingbeard, who did not return them.
The Tampa Bay Times and 10News WTSP have a content-sharing partnership.
On Oct. 30, Van Fleet posted a message to his supporters on Facebook.
"Your support the last month has shown me that all of those nights not sleeping, along with weekends, and even mornings covering severe weather for you, meant something to you," he wrote. "I hope to get everything resolved soon."
A petition on change.org asking WTSP to bring back Van Fleet had 773 signatures as of Thursday.
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.