Fired Senate staffer awarded millions in discrimination suit

PHOENIX (AP) — A jury has awarded $2.75 million to an Arizona legislative staffer who said she was fired from her job as a policy adviser for state Senate Democrats because of discrimination based on her race and gender.

The verdict this week marks the second trial victory for Talonya Adams, a Black woman who acted as her own lawyer and witness. Adams was awarded $1 million in 2019 and got her job back, but a federal judge ordered a new trial last year.

A new jury on Tuesday again sided with Adams following a three-day trial and awarded even more in damages, though the total is likely to be reduced to $300,000 because of a cap on employment discrimination judgements under federal law.

Adams alleged she was fired in 2015 for raising questions about the process of getting a raise, noting she made less than her white male colleagues.

“I really hope the message that it sends is to people of color and to women and to marginalized individuals that if they’re being discriminated against in the workplace, there are remedies under the law that they should pursue and fight for justice,” Adams said Thursday.

The case has become a liability for Katie Hobbs, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for Arizona governor who was the Senate’s Democratic leader when Adams was fired in 2015. Hobbs was not named as a defendant but was involved in the decision to fire Adams and testified in both trials.

She told the jury this week that the firing was a consensus decision reached by a group that included the Republican and Democratic chiefs of staff in the Senate, KPNX-TV reported. Hobbs, now the Arizona secretary of state, said she had “lost trust” in Adams, citing in part the policy adviser’s emergency leave to care for her son out of state, and she wished she had been a “better ally” for Adams.

Two Democrats running against Hobbs in the Democratic primary latched onto the verdict and issued scathing statements.

“We need to have an open and honest discussion about what happened, who is accountable, and if we, as Democrats, are prepared to support a nominee for governor who behaved in this manner just a few short years ago,” Aaron Lieberman, an investor and former state legislator, wrote.

Marco Lopez, a businessman and former mayor of Nogales, said the verdict “raises serious questions” that Hobbs “must answer.”

“As governor, I will not tolerate this type or any kind of discriminatory behavior in my administration,” he wrote.

Jennah Rivera, a spokeswoman for the Hobbs campaign, said Hobbs fought for pay increases for Democratic staff during her time as the Senate minority leader, but personnel decisions are ultimately up to the Republican chief of staff.

“The state legislature, both in 2015 and today, is run by Republicans who pay their staffers more than the Democratic Senate staff — which is dramatically more diverse than the Republican staff,” Rivera said in a statement. “This problem is systemic, it persists today, and it needs to be fixed.”

Adams said she will campaign against Hobbs if asked to do so.

“I do not believe she is fit to serve,” Adams said. “I do not believe she’s a person that should be bestowed the power or the authority to govern the citizens of Arizona.”

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