Jeff Gottlieb, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who helped lead the team that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for public service, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against his old employer alleging age discrimination and detailing a years-long tug-of-war over prize money for a series of investigative stories.
The 30-page complaint, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, lays out a series of events that occurred after Gottlieb's work exposing corruption in Bell, California in 2010 and before his resignation from the Los Angeles Times in 2015.
Included in the lawsuit are accusations that Los Angeles Times editors withheld a portion of prize money awarded for the investigation into Bell for more than two years.
The lawsuit, which was filed jointly against the Los Angeles Times and its editor and publisher, Davan Maharaj, alleges that the newspaper "discharged older employees with greater frequency than younger employees, hired fewer employees who were older than 40 and gave better jobs and benefits to younger employees."
The Los Angeles Times responded to the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon, calling it "completely without merit."
The lawsuit is completely without merit. The Times did not and does not discriminate against employees on the basis of age or any other factor. When we have an opportunity to defend ourselves in court, we're confident this will become abundantly clear.
Gottlieb, 62, is being represented by Shegerian and Associates, the same firm that recently won a $7.13 million judgment for former L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers, who also leveled accusations of age discrimination against the newspaper. Months later, that judgment was voided by a Los Angeles County judge.
According to Gottlieb's lawsuit, after the Los Angeles Times received a Pulitzer for the Bell series, he asked Ashley Dunn, then metro editor, what his next assignment would be. Dunn told Gottlieb he wasn't planning on adding anyone to the investigative team and assigned Gottlieb to cover Orange County, according to the complaint. Gottlieb refused to go, but Dunn insisted, according to the complaint.
Over the next few years, Gottlieb was assigned to cover the wrongful death trial of Michael Jackson, religion and obituaries, according to the complaint. In April 2015, after he returned from a seven-and-a-half week leave for prostate cancer surgery (during which he was asked to work), Gottlieb was assigned work that was "substantially inferior" to his previous assignments, according to the complaint.
Gottlieb then quit, which allegedly prompted metro editor Shelby Grad to remark that "when older, experienced reporters quit, he had learned not to talk them into staying."
The complaint puts Gottlieb's treatment into an alleged pattern of age discrimination at the Los Angeles Times and says the defendants' real motivation "was to discharge him because of his age."
A senior editor at the Los Angeles Times pushed back against Gottlieb's claims Wednesday morning, calling his claims of ageism unfounded and saying his departure was voluntary.
In an email, Gottlieb declined to comment, deferring to his attorneys.
Elsewhere in the lawsuit, Gottlieb's lawyers detail his repeated inquiries into the fate of a portion of prize money from the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. In February 2011, the reporters and behind the Bell stories were awarded $35,000, but not all of that money was immediately distributed, according to the lawsuit. Gottlieb and his reporting partner Ruben Vives each received $5,000 and a lesser amount was distributed to other reporters.
In February 2012, Gottlieb asked Maharaj what became of the money, and he referred Gottlieb to Dunn. According to the complaint, Dunn told Gottlieb that the money would be used for a staff party, but one was never held.
In November 2012, according to the complaint, Gottlieb emailed Maharaj, Dunn and managing editor Marc Duvoisin asking that the remainder of the prize money be distributed; Dunn allegedly gave a response "effectively stating that the paper would be keeping the money."
Months later, in May 2013, Gottlieb emailed Kathy Thomson, then president and chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Times Media Group, explaining the situation. After initially declining to distribute the remaining cash — about $5,000 or so — editors planned to use the money for a holiday party. Ultimately, Gottlieb and Ruben each received an additional $1,500 in prize money "without being provided an accounting of the award money," according to the complaint.
A senior editor at the Los Angeles Times told Poynter that the remaining prize money from the Selden Ring Award was ultimately donated to the journalism program at Bell High School by vote of the journalists who contributed to the coverage. Gottlieb opted to withhold his share of the prize money from the donation, according to the editor.
These accusations have been reported on before. In 2013, The Washington Post's Erik Wemple detailed the back and forth over the prize money, noting that a celebratory party had yet to materialize.
Here's the entire lawsuit:
Editor’s Note: Poynter has removed anonymously sourced comments from paragraphs 11 and 12 of this original story. We regret that their publication didn’t comply with our normal standards on use of anonymous comments.
Correction: A previous version of this story implied Gottlieb was an individual winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In fact, he helped lead a team that won the prize.