Arizona Senate Staffer Who Was Discriminated Against By Former Boss Katie Hobbs Wins Lawsuit

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Secretary of State Katie Hobbs | Talonya Adams

This week Talonya Adams prevailed in federal court against the Arizona Senate, for the second time. And while most of the attention has rightly focused on the former legislative policy advisor’s tribulations, some observers are finding the lack of comment by Adams’ former boss and current Secretary of State, Katie Hobbs, concerning.

On Wednesday, the federal jury’s unanimous verdicts were announced in favor of Adams on claims of retaliatory firing and racial discrimination. The verdicts came with an award for Adams of $2.75 million in damages, although a federal judge will reduce the award due to a law capping damages in federal discrimination lawsuits.

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It was the second time Adams, who is a Black female and an attorney, represented herself in front of a jury regarding her 2015 termination which came after Adams provided the Senate Democratic leadership with documentation that she was paid about $30,000 less than colleagues of similar experience. Those colleagues were white and male.

In 2019, a federal jury awarded Adams $1 million along with a court order which required the Senate to give Adams a job. The Senate leadership then challenged the verdict, leading to the recent trial and a significantly larger monetary award.

Hobbs, a Democrat who served as the Senate Minority Leader in early 2015, was called to testify at both trials. Evidence presented to the jurors showed Hobbs was aware of Adams’ claim of pay disparity, including the fact other policy advisors had received raises while Adams never had her salary increased despite working for the Senate nearly three years.

But weeks later, Adams was terminated. Then in September 2015, Hobbs signed a declaration alleging Adams firing shortly after she returned to work following a medical emergency involving her son was due to acts of willful disobedience, insubordinate behavior, and “abandoning her position.”

Hobbs said in 2019 she “should have” done better in handling Adams’ 2015 complaint but when testifying under oath this month she described her role in Adams’ termination as part of a group decision despite the fact she was the top ranking Democrat in the Arizona Senate at the time.

This week a spokeswoman for Hobbs’ gubernatorial run released a statement which reads like a campaign ad and barely mentions Adams.

Spokeswoman Jennah Rivera offers no apology or sympathy to Adams for the discrimination two federal juries say she clearly suffered while working for the Senate Democratic caucus. Nor does Rivera offer any well wishes to Adams.

Instead, Rivera uses the case to point a finger at Republican legislators and staffers for the “systemic” problem of pay differentials between the two parties’ caucuses. The statement also touts the “dramatically more diverse” staffers who work for Democrats in the legislature compared to those who work for Republicans.

Rivera then mentions how Hobbs, as governor, will fight for equity for all Arizonans. The callousness of Rivera’s statement in light of the jury’s unanimous verdict was not lost on one political observer.

“This was a chance for Katie Hobbs to try to rise above the situation and take responsibility for her failures. She could have apologized for what she did,” said Constantin Querard, an Arizona-based Conservative campaign consultant. “Instead, she let her campaign issue a statement and turned this entire sad story into some sort of campaign pitch.  At this point Hobbs shouldn’t just be worried about Democrats abandoning her campaign for higher office, she should be worried about her base asking her to resign from her current office.”

Someone who did acknowledge the personal struggle Adams has dealt with the last six years is Sandra D. Kennedy, a former state representative and state senator legislator who currently serves on the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Kennedy, a Democrat, tweeted thanks to the jury for its deliberation and to Adams for her courage.
kennedy tweet

Meanwhile, former Rep. Aaron Lieberman called the discrimination experienced by Adams “abhorrent to all Arizonans” and expressed hope that the trial’s outcome will prompt a conversation of how Adams’ pay equity complaint resulted in termination.

“We need to have an open and honest discussion about what happened, who is accountable, and if we, as Democrats, are prepared to support a nominee for governor who behaved in this manner just a few short years ago,” said Lieberman, one of Hobbs’ challengers for the Democratic nomination for governor. “Being an effective Democratic leader is about more than just participating in partisan fights; it is about holding a key set of values and living those values all the time—especially when no one is watching.”