Jury awards Senate staffer $2.7M in discrimination suit

Jury awards Senate staffer $2.7M in discrimination suit

A jury awarded Senate policy adviser Talonya Adams $2.75 million on Wednesday after finding she was fired due to racial and sex-based discrimination. 

It marks the second time Adams, who represented herself, won a lawsuit against the Senate in U.S. District Court over her termination in 2015. 

At the time, Adams, a Black woman, claimed that a white male majority caucus adviser was making over $30,000 more than her. She requested a raise but was later fired while in Seattle taking care of her son, who was sick at the time.  

Adams filed a lawsuit against the Senate in 2017, and a jury ruled that then-Senate Chief of Staff Wendy Baldo, former Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs – now the secretary of state – and Democratic caucus Chief of Staff Jeffrey Winkler were among those who discriminated unfairly against Adams.  

Talonya Adams

The court ordered the Senate to rehire Adams and awarded her $1 million in damages in 2019.  

Adams asked that her lost wages be calculated based on the higher salary of a white male colleague in the same position and asked to be reinstated with a higher salary than any of her white male Democrat colleagues. 

In 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Rayes granted the Senate’s request for a new trial to relitigate the retaliation allegation after finding that Adams did not present evidence to the jury to back up that claim. 

On Wednesday, the jury again sided with Adams. 

The Arizona Capitol Times confirmed earlier reporting by 12 News’ Brahm Resnik that the jury awarded Adams $2.75 million, including $750,000 for discrimination and $2 million for retaliation. 

It is still unclear whether Adams will walk away with the $2.75 million, though. 

After the original jury awarded Adams $1 million, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Rayes reduced that award to $350,000 in accordance with federal discrimination laws, which imposes a cap on damages based on the number of employees a company has. 

That’s because Adams was – and continues to be – a staffer for Senate Democrats. And part of her lawsuit was based on her contention that she informed Katie Hobbs, now a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, of her concerns about discrimination by her immediate superiors but that Hobbs, then Senate Minority Leader, did not deal with it but instead was at least part of the decision to fire her. 

Adams did not respond to a request for comment. 

The verdict already is causing political ripples. Other candidates in Arizona’s 2022 governor’s race are already commenting on the verdict, using it to question Hobbs’ qualifications for the job. 

“There is no place in Arizona for hate or discrimination,” Democrat Marco Lopez said in a statement provided by his campaign. “This raises serious questions that Secretary of State Hobbs must answer and will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. As governor, I will not tolerate this type or any kind of discriminatory behavior in my administration,” 

Former state Rep. Aaron Lieberman, another Democrat running for governor, said, “This type of discrimination is abhorrent to all Arizonans. As Democrats, it is unacceptable from someone who wants to serve as our Governor.” 

A spokeswoman for Hobbs’ declined to speak on the record but forwarded an emailed statement that largely blamed the Senate Republican Caucus for underpaying Democratic staffers.

“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,” the statement read. “This problem is systemic, it persists today, and it needs to be fixed.”

But 12 News reported that Hobbs testified at the new trial this week that the dismissal was a “group decision” done by “consensus,” with the ultimate dismissal done by Baldo, then the Senate chief of staff.  

Hobbs, then two months into the job of minority leader, also testified that she had “lost trust’” in Adams over several issues, including her decision to take emergency leave to care for her son in Seattle – leave Adams’ supervisor approved. 

“I do not question that she felt discriminated against,” Hobbs said in an earlier interview with Capitol Media Services after the first verdict. But Hobbs also said that no one was wrongfully fired when she was heading the Senate Democrats. 

But Adams, also talking with Capitol Media Services after the first trial, took a swat at Hobbs for maintaining her position that her firing was justified, even after jurors concluded otherwise. 

“To have a sitting secretary of state state that there was no discrimination I think is disrespectful to our judicial system,” Adams said. 

In her 2019 interview, Hobbs said the fact that Adams was paid less than some others had nothing to do with race, calling it an issue with the salary structure. 

“Democratic staff get paid less than Republican staff,” she said. 

Hobbs testified at the new trial that she did not know that anyone had, in fact, approved the emergency leave. And she said that she wished he had been a “better ally” for Adams. 

Hobbs also issued a statement to 12 News stating, in part, “I should have been a stronger ally in this instance.” 

“I apologize to Ms. Adams,” she wrote. 

Capitol Media Services contributed to this report