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Judge gives Senate new trial on retaliation claim

Talonya Adams outside U.S. District Court in Phoenix on Oct. 16, 2019. (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

Talonya Adams outside U.S. District Court in Phoenix on Oct. 16, 2019. (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

The state Senate will get a new chance to escape at least some of the financial penalty imposed over the firing of a staffer.

In a new order, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Rayes, a Republican appointed to the bench by President Obama, acknowledged that a jury last year concluded that the Senate had retaliated against policy adviser Talonya Adams because she complained of discrimination based on both sex and race. That related to the fact she was being paid less than others with similar experience.

But Rayes, after reviewing the record, said he found that Adams, who represented herself, had presented no such evidence. And that, the judge said, means the Senate gets a new trial on that claim.

The new ruling does not mean the state is off the financial hook.

Jurors separately concluded that Adams was, in fact, the victim of discrimination. And nothing in the ruling overturns that fact.

But it does give attorneys for the Senate a chance to argue that the $1 million jury verdict — reduced to $300,000 by the judge — should be further decreased.

And none of this affects her court-ordered reinstatement.

There was no immediate response from Adams.

Adams was hired by the Senate in November 2012 as a policy advisor, essentially a staffer who helps lawmakers craft and understand legislation. Adams said she was “a strong performer who did not receive any negative criticisms during her employment.”

In early 2015 Adams said she learned 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 she said she was the only policy advisor who did not get a raise while she was there.

At the same time, Adams said 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. She 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.

After a four-day trial, the jury sided with claims by Adams, who is black, that she was paid less than other male, white counterparts. The jurors also found that she was discriminated against with respect to the amount of leave she was allowed to take.

What’s at issue here, though, is the conclusion by jurors that she was terminated for complaining about the discrimination. Rayes said that decision cannot stand.

He said the testimony during the trial reflects that Adams discussed with Wendy Baldo, the Senate chief of staff, her belief that she was the victim of discrimination.

“However, this testimony does not indicate that Ms. Adams alleged sex or race discrimination, particularly,” the judge wrote. And he said what was presented during the trial was that Adams complained to Baldo about her workload.

“Whether Ms. Adams was terminated for complaining about disproportionate workload based on race or sex was not a question posed to the jury,” Rayes said.

“In sum, despite ample opportunity to do so, Ms. Adams has not identified any evidence presented to the jury that she complained to her employer about race or sex discrimination in terms of pay, which is the specific (legally) protected activity upon which her retaliation claim is based,” the judge said. “Consequently, the jury could not properly find for Ms. Adams on her retaliation claim.”

Less clear is what this means financially, even assuming attorneys for the Senate convince jurors at a new trial that there was no retaliation.

In awarding $1 million, the jurors did not separate out how much was based on their finding of discrimination — the verdict that stands — and how much was based on retaliation. The only reason Rayes reduced it to $300,000 is that is the maximum he said she is entitled to under federal anti-discrimination laws — with another $50,000 for things like lost wages.


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