The Arizona Senate fired a former Democratic policy advisor because she complained that she was being paid less because of her race and gender, a federal court ruled Friday evening.
A U.S. District Court jury awarded Talonya Adams $1 million, according to court documents filed Monday. The jury found that Adams, a black attorney who was fired in 2015 after asking about a raise, had been discriminated against because of her race and gender.
According to court documents, Adams worked for the Senate from December 2012 until February 2015 as a Democratic policy advisor, earning $60,000 per year during her whole tenure. Adams also ran for a seat in the House in 2018, finishing last in a four-way primary in Legislative District 27.
A few weeks before she was fired, she emailed Minority Chief of Staff Jeff Winkler and then-Minority Leader Katie Hobbs with concerns about her committee workload and whether she was being paid accurately because her timesheets only reflected eight hours of work per day. Adams then met with Senate Chief of Staff Wendy Baldo, who oversees all employees, to discuss those concerns in early February.
A few days later, the Legislative Report, a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times, published the salaries of all state Senate employees and Adams learned that she made nearly $30,000 less than Garth Kamp, a white male policy advisor for the majority caucus who had similar committee assignments. Adams emailed Baldo the next morning to ask about protocol for requesting a raise, and Baldo told her she needed to go through Democratic leadership.
Adams emailed all six members of the elected Democratic leadership team to ask for a meeting to discuss her position, and Hobbs told her to discuss the matter with Winkler.
At the same time, Adams planned to travel to Seattle to care for her sick son. She was away in Washington when Winkler learned that she hadn’t completed a briefing project due that day.
On Feb. 20, 2015, Baldo, Winkler and Hobbs agreed to fire Adams, citing a lack of confidence caused by her failure to complete projects before leaving for Seattle. Adams was fired by phone later that day.
She sued in federal court in 2017, alleging that the Senate violated the federal Civil Rights Act by paying her less than white male employees and firing her in retaliation after she complained.
Adams said she couldn’t speak about the case until after an Aug. 14 evidentiary hearing, at which the court will decide whether she’s owed additional damages. That could include the Senate making up the difference between the salary Adams was paid for three years and the salaries of white male colleagues in similar roles, said Jocquees Blackwell, an attorney who worked with Adams on the case.
A spokesman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office deferred comment to an attorney with an outside firm, Ryley Carlock & Applewhite PA, that also represented the Senate, and a call to its attorney was not immediately returned.
The Arizona Senate is working on adjusting its pay scales because some employees are not paid commensurate with their experience. Baldo told the Arizona Capitol Times those discussions are not related to Adams’ suit, but said she couldn’t comment further on the case.
The $1 million, like other penalties against state agencies, would be paid through the Arizona Department of Administration’s Risk Management division, and not the Senate’s $12.9 million budget, Baldo said.