LOS ANGELES – A black former attorney for the ACLU of Southern California is suing the civil rights organization, alleging she was subjected to racism, portrayed as an “angry” woman and wrongfully fired in February for speaking out against how she was treated.
“This lawsuit is a matter of urgent public concern in light of the recent murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Sarah O. Clifton‘s lawsuit states.
An ACLU of Southern California representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the suit filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Clifton is seeking unspecified damages, alleging wrongful discharge, retaliation, hostile work environment harassment and failure to prevent harassment.
While the recent BLM protests have focused on inequities in the criminal justice system, Clifton’s case “seeks to shine a light on the persistent illegal practices that are taking place more broadly throughout the employment sector, especially at nonprofit organizations like the ACLU, which take in millions of dollars in donations in order to purportedly do social justice work on behalf of the black community,” according to her court papers.
Clifton alleges the ACLU recently decided to “conveniently insert itself into the public BLM discourse by filing a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles using the plight of black folks purely for self-interested gain.”
The ACLU’s executive director, Hector Villagra, has gone on record criticizing the city of Los Angeles, alleging city officials have failed to take meaningful action on longstanding concerns of black and brown communities, yet he has “failed to hold his own organization to those same standards, allowing flagrantly racist policies and procedures to reign supreme…,” the suit states.
Clifton’s mother is Justice Rogeriee Thompson, who was born in segregated South Carolina and was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama in 2010, according to her court papers. Her father, William O. Clifton, served as an associate director on the Rhode Island District Court for almost 14 years before he died in 2018.
Clifton was hired by the ACLU in September 2018 as a staff attorney involved with issues in the Los Angeles County jails. Her supervisor was Jessica Farris, the organization’s director of criminal justice and drug policy, the suit states.
From the outset, Farris appeared to have an “actual, irrational fear” of Clifton, the plaintiff alleges. Farris’ alleged demeanor was not surprising to Clifton because she and many blacks in America experience such reactions every day, the suit says.
Even a black celebrity like Oprah Winfrey was once denied admittance to a tony Chicago boutique that used a buzzer system to screen out people management considered suspicious, according to the complaint.
To accommodate Farris, Clifton was “overly polite” during their conversations and tried to act “less black” with her boss, hoping in the mistaken belief that this would make her feel comfortable and encourage her to treat the plaintiff fairly, the suit states.
Whenever Clifton spoke out about racial equity issues, her remarks were “consistently misconstrued and perceived as angry or aggressive by the organization’s management team members who overwhelmingly are white or white-presenting,” the suit alleges.
When Clifton complained about racial disparities during a staff meeting, for example, Villagra chastised and yelled at her, shocking many present who perceived his conduct to be “racially motivated and extremely disrespectful,” the suit alleges.
Clifton was fired on Valentine’s Day in the middle of Black History Month “for being nothing more than a stereotypical angry black woman,” according to her court papers, which allege that the ACLU subsequently offered her a $48,000 severance that required arbitration of disputes “in a shameful attempt to silence” her.
“The hypocrisy is rich given that the ACLU at a national level has always taken a public stance against forced arbitration,” the suit states.
Clifton is “positive that once all the evidence comes to light in a public trial, she will be vindicated and will overwhelmingly prove to a trier of fact that she was discriminated against on the basis of her race and retaliated against for making multiple protected complaints to the very organization whose purported mission is to fight against such insidious discrimination,” the suit states.