A Black former attorney for the ACLU of Southern California who is suing the civil rights organization — alleging she was subjected to racism, portrayed as an “angry” woman and wrongfully fired for speaking out against such treatment — lost a round in court Friday, March 4, when a judge dismissed a harassment claim against her former boss.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jon R. Takasugi had previously questioned the sufficiency of plaintiff Sarah O. Clifton‘s harassment allegation against Jessica Farris — who was the plaintiff’s supervisor and the organization’s director of Criminal Justice and Drug Policy — during an October court hearing, but he allowed Clifton to file an amended complaint. After Friday’s hearing, the judge concluded once again that Clifton did not allege any actual harassment by Farris, but rather, she perceived her boss was uncomfortable around her.
“Plaintiff has been afforded multiple opportunities to allege facts which could state a claim for harassment by defendant,” the judge wrote. “Plaintiff has failed to do so and thus the court believes additional leave to amend would be futile.”
Clifton’s lawyer, Kevin W. Chiang, on Friday urged Takasugi to give him another chance to amend the suit. Chiang said that after Clifton told Farris, who is white, about the difficulties of being a Black attorney, her boss made a motion with her neck that is stereotypically linked to Black women and said, “You make me shake.”
Chiang, who is Asian, called Farris’ action a “neck roll” and compared it to someone using their fingers to make themselves look squinty- eyed. He made reference to Houston Astros player Yuli Gurriel making such a motion with his fingers during the 2017 World Series after the first baseman hit a home run off then-Dodger pitcher Yu Darvish, who was born in Japan of and of Japanese and Iranian descent. However, ACLU attorney Marie L. Wrighten, who is Black, said she disagreed with Chiang’s argument.
“I honestly don’t know what Mr. Chiang is saying,” Wrighten said.
Wrighten also called on Chiang to dismiss the remaining claim in the suit against Farris — for retaliation — saying it was inappropriate in this case to apply the cause of action to an individual. Chiang did not commit one way or the other and the judge told the lawyers to work out the issue between themselves.
In the October ruling, the judge found Clifton had presented a prima facie showing of alleged harassment by the ACLU of Southern California’s executive director, Hector Villagra, noting that during a staff meeting, Villagra allegedly “blew up, lost his temper and start yelling and arguing with (Clifton) in front of everyone. He also tried to cross-examine her, asking her to provide empirical evidence for her arguments.” After several minutes, Clifton’s co-worker and colleague, Carolina Briones, stood up and asked Villagra to calm down, back off and suggested that he and the plaintiff have further discussions privately, according to the judge.
The suit was originally filed in June 2020 against the ACLU of Southern California, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Farris and Villagra. It describes the case as “a matter of urgent public concern” in light of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the “resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.” While the 2020 BLM protests 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 in 2020 chose 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.” 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. 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.
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 2020 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.