Santa Clara is being sued by its former city attorney who claims officials fired him unlawfully as part of a hushed agreement with San Francisco 49ers owners.
Brian Doyle—who helped lead several city actions to control 49ers management of Levi’s Stadium—said in a lawsuit the Santa Clara City Council majority terminated him in September 2021, as part of a “quid pro quo” deal to make team-friendly decisions in exchange for millions in campaign support.
Doyle is suing for an unspecified amount of economic and non-economic damages. He claims he was unable to find work again until June this year because of the city’s treatment of him, and is earning less money than he did in Santa Clara and working in Merced far from his family.
The unlawful termination lawsuit, in which Doyle claims his firing was retaliation for whistleblowing, was filed in Santa Clara Superior Court on Aug. 30, about two years after Doyle was fired without cause. The lawsuit was first reported by The Mercury News.
The suit claims in Doyle’s nearly four and a half years as city attorney, he “worked on behalf of (Santa Clara and the city council) to hold the San Francisco 49ers to account. That included, among other things, efforts to recover unpaid rent and to end the 49ers management of Levi’s Stadium based on incurable breaches of the Stadium Management Agreement.”
He claims he was fired by the “49er Five”—a derisive term for five councilmembers he and others have accused of having too cozy a relationship with the team’s ownership—after he refused to participate in a closed session meeting over legal concerns.
“Because of his disclosure and refusal to participate in the closed session, (Santa Clara City Council) unlawfully retaliated against (Doyle) and terminated him as city attorney without cause,” the suit said.
Doyle and his attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Sham’ performance review
Doyle’s lawsuit notes he was in charge when the city “fought and won a major victory that resolved a $180 million rent dispute with the 49ers.” His lawsuit pulled in part from an October 2022 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report that lambasted the “49er Five” and the murky ethics of councilmembers’ ties to the 49ers.
The “49er Five” includes Councilmembers Anthony Becker, Suds Jain, Kevin Park, Raj Chahal and Karen Hardy. Doyle said in his suit the team’s ownership made an “unprecedented intrusion into local politics” in 2020, when team-controlled political action committees spent millions supporting the election of Jain, Becker and Park.
Team owner Jed York spent about $3 million in 2020 in Santa Clara elections, and about $4.5 million more in 2022 elections, largely in Santa Clara.
However, Doyle was also criticized for his handling of a 2017 Voting Rights Act lawsuit demanding the city switch to district elections. Doyle led the city in unsuccessfully fighting the suit, and was largely blamed for the nearly $6 million price tag once the case settled.
In December 2020, Doyle claims in his lawsuit that Councilmember Chahal called for a closed session discussion of the voting rights lawsuit, possibly to discuss dismissing the city claims in the suit.
Doyle said in the lawsuit he thought that was “contrary to the city’s interests” and a move to dismiss the city’s claims before a Dec. 17, 2020 appeal hearing could “lead to criminal prosecution of (council) members who had a conflict of interest due to the quid pro quo agreement.”
Doyle warned some councilmembers not to participate in such a closed session meeting and said he would also not attend the meeting without a clear understanding of what would be discussed.
Chahal declined to comment citing pending litigation. A city spokesperson declined comment due to pending litigation.
Months later, in April 2021, two councilmembers “admitted that 49ers lobbyists had expressed that they ‘would like to see (Doyle) gone’ and that they had ‘concerns about the city attorney,’” Doyle’s suit claims.
Though he was entitled to a performance review, Doyle claims the city hired an outside consultant to help run it, and said it amounted to a “sham” and a “cover-up” for his eventual firing.
Months after Doyle was fired, so too was Deanna Santana, the city manager who also was critical of the 49ers and an ally of Mayor Lisa Gillmor. Though Santana retained an attorney after her firing, she later accepted a year’s pay in a severance agreement and waived the right to sue the city.
At the time, Gillmor didn’t mince words about the two firings.
“No city council has ever gutted City Hall and put residents in jeopardy with no management at City Hall,” Gillmor said. “No city council has so obviously put a private interest above the public interest, and I think this is a really, really sad day in Santa Clara history.”