PHOENIX — A Senate Democratic staffer who says she was fired because of her race was awarded more than $2.7 million this week by a federal court jury.
The verdict came after jurors heard from Talonya Adams about how she was dismissed in 2015 after she complained about discrimination based on her race — she is Black — and her gender. Much of that followed her claim that male non-African American counterparts “received substantially higher salaries and salary increases.’’
Adams also said that while the job responsibilities were the same she had a “heavier workload and the more challenging committee assignments.’’ And Adams said she was the only policy advisor who did not get a raise while she was there.
But it remains to be seen how much of that money she actually will receive.
The verdict already is causing political ripples.
That’s because Adams was -- and continues to be -- a staffer for Senate Democrats after she won an earlier trial and a judge ordered her reinstated. That verdict was set aside for legal reasons, leading to this new trial.
And part of her lawsuit was based on her contention that she informed Katie Hobbs, then the Senate minority leader, of her concerns about discrimination by her immediate superiors but that Hobbs did not deal with it but instead was at least part of the decision to fire her.
Hobbs is now secretary of state and a Democratic contender for governor. And both of her Democratic foes issued statements saying the new verdict reflects on her fitness to lead the state.
“This raises serious questions that Secretary of State Hobbs must answer and will cost taxpayers millions of dollars,’’ said Marco Lopez, the former Nogales mayor. “As governor, I will not tolerate this type or any kind of discriminatory behavior in my administration.’’
And former lawmaker Aaron Lieberman said a jury has concluded, now twice, “that Talonya Adams was fired by Katie Hobbs for asking to be paid as much as her white male counterparts.’’
“This type of discrimination is abhorrent to all Arizonans, regardless of party,’’ he continued. “As Democrats, it should be unacceptable from someone who wants to serve as our nominee for governor.’’
Hobbs was never named as a defendant.
As to whether Hobbs actually fired Adams, KPNX-TV reports that Hobbs testified at the new trial this week that the dismissal was a “group decision’’ done by “consensus,’’ with the ultimate dismissal done by Wendy Baldo, then the chief of staff by the Senate. Hobbs, then two months into the job of minority leader, also testified that she had “lost trust’’ in Adams over several issues, including her decision to take emergency leave to care for her son in Seattle.
It was during that leave -- which Adams’ immediate supervisor had approved -- that she was fired.
Hobbs would not comment Thursday on the verdict, instead having Jennah Rivera, who is her campaign spokeswoman, issue a prepared statement. But that did not directly address the issue at trial of whether Adams, as a black woman, was treated different than other staffers.
Instead, Rivera said there was -- and is -- a “systemic’’ problem of Democratic staffers being paid less than those who work for Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate. And Rivers said that Hobbs not only fought as Senate minority leader for pay increases for Democratic staffers but, as secretary of state, tackled pay inequity issues on that office.
Hobbs had a somewhat different response after the first trial.
“I do not question that she felt discriminated against,’’ Hobbs said in an earlier interview with Capitol Media Services after the first verdict. But Hobbs also said that no one was wrongfully fired when she was heading the Senate Democrats.
But Adams, also talking with Capitol Media Services after the first trial, took a swat at Hobbs for maintaining her position that her firing was justified, even after jurors concluded otherwise.
“To have a sitting secretary of state state that there was no discrimination I think is disrespectful to our judicial system,’’ Adams said.
“And it gives me grave concern about someone that sits at the helm and governs one of the most sacred rights to people of color,’’ she continued. “And that’s the right to vote.’’
Hobbs is the chief elections officer.
In that first trial a jury awarded Adams $1 million. But that was reduced to $300,000 after U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Rayes said that is the maximum to which she is entitled under federal anti-discrimination laws, with another approximately $50,000 for things like lost wages.
The Senate demanded and got a new trial after Rayes agreed that Adams, who represented herself, had failed to present evidence of retaliation. This time the new jury agreed on an even larger award.
Whether that also will be knocked down based on limits in federal law is likely to be the subject of a hearing Rayes has scheduled for this coming week.
Aside from complaining about pay and assignments, Adams said she that in early 2015 she had to travel to Seattle to be with her son who was hospitalized due to a medical emergency, saying she was told she would have to use annual leave.
Adams said she kept in contact with the Senate and even did some duties while in Seattle, only to be told she had been fired for insubordination and abandoning her job.
In her 2019 interview, Hobbs said the fact that Adams was paid less than some others had nothing to do with race, calling it an issue with the salary structure.
“Democratic staff get paid less than Republican staff,’’ she said.
Hobbs testified at the new trial that she did not know that anyone had, in fact, approved the emergency leave. And she said that she wished he had been a “better ally’’ for Adams.
Adams said after the first trial it is difficult to prove charge of racism, particularly in convincing jurors that the actions of the employer were intentional. In fact, Adams said, that is why it is difficult to find attorneys to pursue these cases and why she chose to represent herself.