Many Bay area residents recognize Jim Van Fleet as the chief meteorologist on WTSP Channel 10. However, he was recently terminated.
Now, Van Fleet is suing WTSP, its owners, general manager, and news director for breach of contract, defamation, conspiracy to defame, and negligence.
Van Fleet and his lawyers filed suit in the Circuit Court for Pinellas County Oct. 27. The damages that he seeks exceed $15,000 and includes damage to his reputation, professional standing, and ability to gain new employment in meteorology.
Before coming to WTSP in December 2011, Van Fleet worked at a local station out of Orlando for 20 years. He built a reputation as a “hard-working, trustworthy broadcaster who engaged his audience community,” according to the suit. He also was one of the station’s most regularly watched broadcasters.
In his initial contract with WTSP, Van Fleet signed onto a five-year term, serving as the chief meteorologist. His employment began Dec. 1, 2011, and was set to end Nov. 30, 2016, unless a new contract was signed.
Elliott Wiser, hired as the general manager of WTSP in July 2013, provided Van Fleet with a performance review in the first quarter of 2015. The review was positive, and Wiser informed Van Fleet he had satisfied the new requirements he created on community appearance.
In early 2015, IT problems caused Van Fleet to miss regular post updates. He reported the error to WTSP officials. The next month, Wiser blamed Van Fleet for failing to properly update his weather posts even though it was a technical issue.
At that meeting, Wiser criticized Van Fleet for not going above and beyond in regards to community appearances. He was never informed that this could lead to his termination.
When Van Fleet realized his career was in jeopardy, he attempted to mediate the situation through HR. He tried reaching out many times in April and May 2015. His request was ignored by the station’s HR manager — who was also Wiser’s executive assistant.
This is when Van Fleet claims Wiser and Robert Clinkingbeard, the station’s news director, began planning a way to seek revenge.
Within the next few months, the suit claims the two began delegating duties of the chief meteorologist to junior meteorologists.
In February 2016, Wiser sent Van Fleet to what was assumed to be a Super Bowl viewing party. When he arrived, it was obvious none of the establishment’s staff knew of any viewing party.
Van Fleet later learned that a viewing party was taking place at a separate location, staffed by other WTSP personnel. When he spoke to Clinkingbeard about the party, he suggested better planning “next time.”
“There may not be another time,” Clinkingbeard responded, which to Van Fleet, came off as a threat.
In March 2016, both WTSP higher-ups allegedly accused Van Fleet drug use, despite his passing a drug test when he was hired.
In April 2016, Van Fleet was suspended for two weeks after a misunderstanding during the 5 p.m. news broadcast. Van Fleet was in the weather center preparing for his segment when he was informed he was in the shot of the ongoing broadcast.
According to the “Final Written Warning and Suspension” provided to Van Fleet by Clinkingbeard, the weather forecaster’s following actions showed “a lack of judgment, lack of leadership and failure on your part to recognize the impact that your behavior could have on the entire station should your words have been heard on the air.”
Van Fleet received the noticed after returning from suspension May 9, 2016. That same day, he learned his agreement would not be renewed.
On Sept. 21, Van Fleet was escorted from the building and asked to turn in his access to the WTSP station. He was provided with a letter stating he would continue his employment and receive pay and benefits through the end of his contract. However, Van Fleet said he was terminated while being escorted out.
Under the contract, the station agreed to pay for his fees and continuing education required to keep his accreditation current. There were also certain terms relating to termination. The company failed to comply with both of those terms in Van Fleet’s contract.
In 2014, WTSP withdrew Van Fleet’s registration to a conference, allegedly due to budget cuts. Again, in 2016, the company refused to reimburse Van Fleet for fees to renew his annual seal.
Firing Van Fleet without complying with the termination provisions set at the start of his employment, he says WTSP again broke the terms of his employment.
Wiser was forced to resign in September 2016.