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Judge: Fired Senate Democratic staffer will get $350,000, job back

Talonya Adams

Talonya Adams

A former policy adviser for the Arizona Senate Democratic caucus will receive her job back and more than $350,000 in damages, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

The Senate must reinstate Talonya Adams by Halloween, federal Judge Douglas L. Rayes wrote in his order. Adams, a black attorney who was fired by the Senate in 2015 after asking for a raise, succeeded this summer in convincing a federal jury that she faced race- and sex-based discrimination.

Adams told the Arizona Capitol Times that the verdict reaffirmed her belief in law and justice. 

“To sit there in that courtroom after all is said and done and have the jury rule in my favor on each count was a surreal experience,” she said.

The roughly $350,000 Rayes awarded Adams is well below the $1 million a jury initially awarded because lawsuits filed under Title VII , the federal statute that prohibits discrimination based on race, sex and other protected classes, include a statutory cap on damages based on how many employees a company has. 

Adams, who represented herself, and attorneys for the Senate sparred in court in August over whether her damages would be capped at $100,000 as an employee for the Senate or $300,000 as a state employee. Rayes sided with Adams.

He also awarded her about $38,700 in back pay for lost wages, based on a calculation that Adams, who was making $60,000 as a Democratic policy adviser, should have been making somewhere closer to the six-figure salaries pulled by white male policy advisers for the Republican caucus. 

A spokesman for the Senate Democratic caucus said Senate Democrats cannot comment until terms for Adams’ reinstatement are finalized.

Senate President Karen Fann told Capitol Media Services that she hasn’t had a chance to speak with attorneys since hearing about the order to decide what to do next.

On one hand, Fann said, there’s the court order which needs to be obeyed. But she also said it would be “awkward” to bring Adams back on board given all the history of her employment and the charges she brought against supervisors, including some senators.

“But we’ll figure it out,” Fann said. “If that’s what she wants to do and that’s what we need to do, fine. But if there’s another alternative, that’s OK, too.”

In court in August, Adams requested additional compensation in lieu of reinstatement because she questioned whether the Senate could be a welcoming work environment.

Senate Chief of Staff Wendy Baldo and Democratic caucus Chief of Staff Jeffrey Winkler, two of the three people a jury ruled discriminated against Adams, are both still employed in those roles. The third, then-Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, is now Secretary of State.

In August, Baldo said she did not believe Adams encountered race-based discrimination but did believe Hobbs and Winkler discriminated against Adams based on her gender. She said if Adams were reinstated, the Senate would not permit discrimination of any kind.

Adams in court said she would accept reinstatement at a salary of no less than $100,000. If the Senate offers that, she would be earning between $25,000 and $17,600 more than all other Democratic employees with the title of policy adviser in both the House and the Senate, according to recent salary schedules provided to the Arizona Capitol Times

Adams told the Arizona Capitol Times on Thursday night that she welcomes getting her job back, and she plans to save most of the money she’ll receive. She said she expects to be paid commensurate with her experience, and that she’s hesitant to set a number because she knows many Senate employees received sizable raises after her August court date. 

She dismissed arguments made by the Senate that she and other Democratic policy advisers were paid less than their Republican counterparts just because they work for the minority caucus. All Senate employees, whether Republican, Democratic or nonpartisan, ultimately report to the Senate President and Chief of Staff.

“We serve the same president, in the same location, in the same committees, doing the same work,” Adams  said. “Democrats and Republicans and staffers should be paid commensurate to the work that they’re doing.”

Adams worked for the Senate from December 2012 until February 2015. She was fired while in Seattle caring for her sick son after Winkler learned she hadn’t completed a briefing project. 

The incident came shortly after Adams saw Senate employee salaries published in the Legislative Report, a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times, realized a white male majority caucus adviser assigned to similar committees was making $30,000 more than she did and contacted Winkler, Hobbs and Baldo about requesting a raise.

Adams said she hopes her case encourages other people who may face discrimination in the workplace to speak and seek legal remedies if needed. 

“I hope that other individuals, women and individuals of color really look at my case and take some affirmative steps to stand up for themselves,” she said. 

Capitol Media Services contributed to this story. 

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to include quotes from Talonya Adams. 

2 comments

  1. Good News for women who stand up for themselves. Maybe now Federal judges will let cases where women are discriminated against be heard and not swept under the rug. Looking at the Chief Fed Judge , in charge, and life time temple learning, a long time coming !!

  2. While it’s a great win, my concern is that every day working women or minorities cannot financially wait for 4 years for justice.

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