Ex-city attorney, fierce critic of the 49ers, sues Santa Clara over ‘unlawful’ firing, retaliation for whistleblowing

Brian Doyle was fired without cause in September 2021

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Former city attorney Brian Doyle, a vocal opponent of the San Francisco 49ers’ management of Levi’s Stadium, is suing the city two years after his dismissal, claiming the Santa Clara City Council fired him illegally and in retaliation for whistleblowing.

Several legal battles erupted between the city and the NFL team during Doyle’s four-year tenure, and his lawsuit stated that he sought “to hold the San Francisco 49ers to account” — long before the council’s political makeup began to shift.

Doyle said he first became skeptical of the City Council’s motives regarding the NFL team before a Dec. 8, 2020, council meeting in which Councilmember Raj Chahal requested a closed-door meeting to discuss a lawsuit involving the California Voting Rights Act and a proposed change in how city councilmembers are elected.

The request to place it on the Dec. 8 agenda was denied, prompting Chahal to request that it be placed on the Dec. 15 agenda, strengthening Doyle’s belief that there was a “quid pro quo” agreement between five councilmembers and third parties acting on behalf of the 49ers ownership, according to the lawsuit.

“The agreement was to form an alliance of candidates who would take official action on behalf of the city to favor the 49ers financially at the expense of the city, including, among other things, the favorable settlement of lawsuits filed against the city by the 49ers, in exchange for millions of dollars in purportedly ‘independent’ campaign expenditures,” according to the lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Aug. 30.

Jed York, the owner of the San Francisco 49ers, spent more than $3 million on Santa Clara elections in 2020.

According to the lawsuit, when Doyle asked Chahal at a public meeting what he wanted to discuss in closed session, Chahal initially “refused to specify a topic and remained circumspect,” according to the lawsuit. Chahal later stated that the closed session could include a potential dismissal of a lawsuit filed in 2017 by five Asian American residents who claimed the city’s previous process of electing councilmembers at-large rather than district-based elections diluted minority votes in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. No Asian American had been elected to the city council since the city’s charter was adopted in 1951, at the time of filing.

Doyle said that voting to dismiss the lawsuit before the Dec. 17 appeals court oral arguments could result in criminal prosecution of those who had a conflict of interest, and he declined to participate in the closed session meeting because he wasn’t sure what it was about — a decision that Chahal said was “avoiding his duty” as city attorney.

The lawsuit was eventually settled in 2021 after the city spent $6 million fighting it over four years — a cost many of the change’s supporters blamed on Doyle.

At a council meeting in April 2021, two councilmembers stated that a 49ers lobbyist had expressed concerns about Doyle and wanted him to resign. According to the lawsuit, councilmembers attempted to fire Doyle in closed session before being informed that he was entitled to an annual review, which had yet to occur in 2021. Doyle’s contract also stated that he could not be fired by the council for 90 days after new members were sworn in; the 90-day period expired on March 8, 2021.

The city hired an outside consultant to conduct the review, Doyle submitted a self-evaluation of his work, and the evaluation was discussed in closed-session meetings. Then, three new councilmembers, Anthony Becker, Kevin Park, and Suds Jain, asked for a closed-door meeting to discuss the firing of a city employee. Doyle was fired by a 5-2 vote on September 2. The dissenting votes were cast by two Doyle supporters, Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Councilmember Kathy Watanabe.

“The evaluation process revealed itself to be a sham and pre-textual cover-up for the retaliatory termination of Plaintiff,” Doyle’s lawsuit stated.

Read the full text of the lawsuit filed against the city of Santa Clara here.

According to Doyle’s lawsuit, he struggled to find work for nearly two years as a result of the council’s “public treatment” and firing. According to the lawsuit, he was hired as interim city attorney in Merced in June, but he makes less money and is far from his family in Santa Clara. Doyle received $332,796 in 2021.

Santa Clara’s spokesperson declined to comment, and Doyle’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment. Chahal did not respond.

Former City Manager Deanna Santana, another foe of the 49ers, was fired six months after Doyle, citing a “lack of confidence” in her ability to do her job. Santana, who was the second highest paid city manager in California in 2020, earning $765,152 in salary and benefits, will receive a year’s severance pay in exchange for waiving her right to sue.

Santa Clara has since appointed new city administrators, with Glen Googins appointed as city attorney in January and Jovan Grogan appointed as city manager in February.

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