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Former Arizona state Senate staffer wins $1 million discrimination lawsuit

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PHOENIX – A former policy adviser to Democratic state senators will receive at least $1 million in damages after a jury agreed lawmakers and staffers discriminated against her based on her race and sex – then fired her for asking about it. 

Talonya Adams, an African American woman, lost her position advising the Senate’s Democratic caucus in February 2015. That was about the time she began asking questions about her salary and workload, according to the lawsuit, which specifically references the involvement of then-Senate minority leader and current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.

“Plaintiff learned that male non-African American counterparts at work received substantially higher salaries and salary increases,” the legal complaint filed by Adams, who represented herself in the case, says.

“Although the job responsibilities were the same, Plaintiff had a heavier workload and the more challenging committee assignments.”

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The complaint says Adams was the only policy adviser who didn’t receive a pay raise during her tenure and wasn’t allowed to pick which committee she staffed. Court transcripts also mention differences in vacation-accrual rates. 

Inequities persisted despite Adams being “a strong performer who did not receive any negative criticisms during her employment,“ according to the lawsuit.

When Adams emailed Democratic leadership and staffers to discuss her concerns, Hobbs called the email “inappropriate,” saying staff had already addressed the issues Adams was raising, the complaint says. Adams then requested a raise directly, citing the higher salaries of white men in equivalent positions, and received no response.

Days later, when Adams had to travel to Seattle to deal with a family medical emergency, Senate staff members instructed her to use annual leave.

Adams stayed in touch with supervisors while she was out of state and “performed some of her work duties” while in Seattle, the complaint says, then abruptly found out she’d been “terminated for insubordination and abandonment of her job.”

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Attorney: Verdict ‘dramatic and monumental’

Attorneys representing the Senate disputed Adams’ claims, saying she made complaints using improper channels and never said explicitly that she felt she was being discriminated against based on race or sex. 

A Senate lawyer also told the judge it wasn’t appropriate to compare the compensation of Adams, a Democratic policy adviser, with that of Republican policy advisers even if they had the same job title and responsibilities because “the majority caucus pays differently than the minority caucus.” 

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An eight-person jury disagreed Friday, finding in favor of Adams on all counts and awarding her $1 million in compensatory damages. She may receive more at a punitive damages hearing set for Aug. 14.

“When she did her closing statement, she didn’t ask for a specific dollar amount,” said Gillmore Bernard, a Phoenix lawyer who helped Adams with the case. “What she asked for was an amount that was fair and that would send a message to the other side, and I think the jury really came back and did that.” 

Stephen Montoya, another attorney who assisted Adams, agreed, calling her victory “dramatic and monumental.”

MORE: Click here to view the verdict

He said he hoped the win would give workers in similar circumstances the confidence to stand up for themselves. 

“I really hope that the state of Arizona takes this (verdict) to heart, because the state did her wrong,” Montoya said. “I understand that the state’s a very large employer and that sometimes employers that size make mistakes. But what the state should do is try to make things right when it makes a mistake, and what it did in this case was try to get away with it.”

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Adams declined to comment until after the August hearing. A spokeswoman for Hobbs said she was “not commenting on the lawsuit at this point at this time.”

The Adams verdict came a month after a database of state employee salaries published by The Republic revealed pay inequities in the Secretary of State’s Office, among other agencies.

After seeing the discrepancies, Hobbs told employees that “fighting for your fair compensation is top of the agenda,” and the office plans to incorporate the findings into its next budget request.

Follow Maria Polletta on Twitter @mpolletta.

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