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Fired Senate staffer who won $1M verdict wants job back

Talonya Adams

Talonya Adams

The former Democratic staffer who won a $1 million discrimination verdict against the Arizona Senate in July wants her job back,  but she questioned in court Wednesday whether it will be a welcoming work environment.

Talonya Adams, a black attorney who worked as a policy adviser for the Democratic caucus from December 2012 to February 2015, was fired after asking questions about her salary and workload. A jury found that Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, then the Senate minority leader, as well as Senate Chief of Staff Wendy Baldo and Democratic caucus Chief of Staff Jeffrey Winkler discriminated against Adams based on her race and gender, then fired her for complaining about it.

During a hearing on additional damages in front of a federal judge, Baldo said she still doesn’t believe that Adams faced race-based discrimination or retaliation. She repeatedly responded to questions from Adams about her beliefs by saying the jury found discrimination, and eventually allowed that she believed Adams encountered sex-based discrimination from Hobbs and Winkler.

“I believe that Ms. Adams believes she was discriminated against because of her race,” Baldo said.

Baldo said there will be a position for Adams in the Senate should U.S District  Judge Douglas L. Rayes rule that Adams be reinstated. And she said she would not permit discrimination of any kind.

“Jeff Winkler works for me, and if there is any exhibition of discriminatory behavior, he will be reprimanded,” she said.

Neither Baldo nor Winkler has received any disciplinary action based on the jury’s finding of discrimination, Baldo said. She said she did not expect anything to happen to her, and that any consequences for Winkler would have to result from a discussion with the current Senate Minority Leader, Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson.

In a statement, Bradley called Baldo’s claims that discrimination was involved “patently false,” adding that only Baldo and the Senate President have the power to hire or fire employees and determine salaries.

“This lawsuit is a direct result of years of inadequate personnel practices at the Senate, including direct orders from Ms. Baldo that ban employee evaluations,” Bradley said. “…We have been working for years to equalize pay for our staff, and for all Arizonans, because we believe that in any workplace one person should not earn more than another for performing the same work.”

Rayes will decide at some point after Aug. 31 whether to rule that Adams should be reinstated at the Senate or receive additional compensation in lieu of reinstatement. He’ll also decide how much of the $1 million jury award she’ll actually receive.

Lawsuits filed under Title VII , the federal statute that prohibits discrimination based on race, sex and other protected classes, come with a statutory cap on damages, so the jury award is not the final say. At issue is whether Adams erred in naming the Senate, not the state of Arizona, as the defendant in the case.

That matters because employers with 15 to 100 employees are capped at $50,000; 101 to 200 employees, $100,000; 201 to 500 employees, $200,000; and 501 or more, $300,000. The state of Arizona employs far more than 500 people. The Senate has just over 100 employees.

All Senate employees are state employees, but Adams’ suit named only the Senate as the employer. The Senate argued that means Adams can only receive a $100,000 settlement, while Adams argued she was a state employee and is entitled to the full $300,000.

The cap, however, applies only to punitive and compensatory damages such as those intended to make up for emotional distress the plaintiff suffered. There’s no cap on payments for lost wages.

Adams is asking for at least $250,000 beyond the $100,000 or $300,000 she receives in capped damages. That includes:

  • About $34,000  in lost wages during the approximately 1 ½ years Adams was employed by the Senate, a number she calculated by averaging the salaries of two higher-paid policy advisors and subtracting her own $60,000 salary
  • About $81,000 in post-termination missing wages, a number reached by extrapolating the wages paid to her successor, a contractor brought in to finish the legislative session, to a $108,000 annual salary and paying three-quarters of that to reflect that she was unemployed for nine months in 2015.
  • About $22,000 in compensation time
  • About $34,000 in accrued vacation
  • About $34,000 in accrued sick leave
  • About $23,000 to represent the state’s 6 percent match to a retirement account
  • Additional money to reflect Adams losing out on the public servant student loan forgiveness program, penalties incurred for withdrawing money from her retirement account after she was fired, a $512 out-of-pocket CAT scan when she didn’t have insurance, her bar association fees and $8,750 for a make-up seminar in Asia as part of her graduation requirements from the Thunderbird School of Global Management 
  • And funds to pay any additional tax liability that ensues because the award comes in a lump-sum judgment instead of paid as annual wages over the course of several years

Adams said she would accept reinstatement in the Senate at a salary of at least $100,000 and wants time to transition out of private practice — she now runs her own solo law firm, 1700 West Law.

Rayes will receive briefs from both sides by Aug. 31 and issue a ruling at some later date. Adams declined to answer questions until after that ruling comes down.

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