A judge Monday, April 11, further trimmed a lawsuit brought by 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.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jon R. Takasugi had previously dismissed 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. The judge found that Clifton did not show any actual harassment by Farris, but rather, she perceived her boss was uncomfortable around her.
During a hearing Monday, Takasugi issued a final ruling granting the ACLU’s motion to dismiss Clifton’s retaliation claim as it pertains to both Farris and ACLU of Southern California’s executive director Hector Villagra.
In her court papers, ACLU lawyer Marie L. Wrighten said Clifton cannot state a claim for retaliation against them because the state Labor Code does not create individual liability for that cause of action. In response, Clifton’s attorney, Kenneth W. Chiang, argued in his court papers that the statutory language is unambiguous, but that the Labor Code section at issue does impose individual liability. However, the judge said the plaintiff’s argument was not tenable.
“The court thus finds an individual employee cannot be held liable for violation of (the) Labor Code…,” the judge wrote. “As a result, (Clifton) cannot state a claim against individual employees Farris or Villagra as a matter of law.”
Under Takasugi’s ruling, Farris is dismissed as a defendant in the case, but Clifton’s retaliation claim against the ACLU will stand and Villagra will still face Clifton’s harassment claim.
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.”
In a ruling last October, the judge found Clifton had presented a prima facie showing of alleged harassment by 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’ 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.
Clifton was hired by the ACLU in September 2018 as a staff attorney involved with issues in the Los Angeles County jails. She 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 the ACLU subsequently offered her a $48,000 severance that required arbitration of disputes “in a shameful attempt to silence” her.
Clifton’s mother is Justice Rogeriee Thompson, who was born in segregated South Carolina and was appointed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals 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.