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Arizona Senate adviser wins $2.75 million jury award in race and sex discrimination case

Talonya Adams represented herself during 2 trials. Cases put the spotlight on her former boss, Democratic Secretary of State and governor candidate Katie Hobbs.

PHOENIX — Editor's note: The above video originally aired on Oct. 18, 2019.

A Federal Court jury on Tuesday awarded an African-American policy adviser for Arizona Senate Democrats $2.75 million in her racial and sexual discrimination lawsuit against the Senate.

Talonya Adams, acting as her own lawyer and witness during the three-day trial, reported the verdict to 12 News. A second attorney advising Adams also confirmed the award.

The jury deliberated three hours before reaching a unanimous verdict.

The case marks the second time in two years that Adams has won a verdict for herself against the Senate while acting as her own attorney in her first two federal court trials.

"It's Talonya and Goliath twice in a row," said attorney Jocquese Blackwell, a legal adviser to Adams. "It's a herculean task - protracted litigation all this time."

"This is a bellwether case for the state... The jury is saying enough is enough when it comes to discrimination."

Jury award might be capped by law

Blackwell said the $2.75 million jury award to Adams would likely be knocked down to $300,000 by a federal cap on employment discrimination claims. 

The first trial in 2019 resulted in a $1 million financial award by the jury. Adams was also restored to her job as a Senate policy adviser after her firing four years earlier.

But under a court ruling last year, the court ordered a new trial on compensation for racial and sex discrimination, as well as for retaliation against Adams.

Trials put Hobbs in the spotlight

Adams filed her civil rights lawsuit against the Arizona Senate. No individual staffers or senators were named, so the jury and judge didn't assign culpability to any of Adams' supervisors.

But during the 2019 trial and again this week, the lawsuit cast a spotlight on Democratic Secretary of State and candidate for governor Katie Hobbs. 

Before her firing in 2015, Adams worked for then-Senate Minority Leader Hobbs and current Chief of Staff Jeff  Winkler. 

Both were part of the group that agreed to fire Adams, and both were called as witnesses.

RELATED: Fired African-American staffer took on AZ Senate; Now she's getting her job back - and $350K

Hobbs 'lost trust' in Adams

During questioning by Adams on Tuesday, Hobbs said the firing was a "group decision" done by "consensus." The group included former Senate Republican Chief of Staff Wendy Baldo, who oversaw the chamber's operations for the GOP majority.

Hobbs was less than two months into her job as minority leader when Adams was fired. Adams had been in her policy adviser position for three years.

Hobbs said she had "lost trust" in Adams over several issues, including Adams' emergency leave to care for her son in Seattle.

Adams had emailed Winkler about the leave and his response was, "Do what you need to do," according to Adams.

"It wasn't my understanding that any of us knew of the emergency or the leave was approved," Hobbs said.

Fired while out of state with injured son

Adams was fired while she was out of state caring for her injured son, according to court records. 

She said she had also sought equal pay after a newspaper investigation showed her pay lagged that of her peers.

Hobbs said toward the end of her testimony that she wished she had been a "better ally" for Adams.

Hobbs campaign spokeswoman Jennah Rivera declined to issue a response to the verdict. She referred 12 News to Hobbs' testimony in court on Tuesday.

Current and former Democratic state lawmakers, including State Sen. Martin Quezada and former Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, testified that they had no problems with Adams' work.

RELATED: Katie Hobbs, Kari Lake lead early polls in Arizona's governor race

Hobbs' opponents respond to verdict

Hobbs' two opponents in the Democratic primary for governor issued scathing statements.

Marco Lopez, a business owner and former mayor of Nogales, said: 

"There is no place in Arizona for hate or discrimination. 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 said: 

"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. 

"The simple truth is that a jury of her peers has now concluded, twice, that Talonya Adams was fired by Katie Hobbs for asking to be paid as much as her white male counterparts. This type of discrimination is abhorrent to all Arizonans, regardless of party.  As Democrats, it should be unacceptable from someone who wants to serve as our nominee for governor."

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