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 in 2020 for speaking out against how she was treated — can proceed with her case with one revision, a judge ruled Monday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jon R. Takasugi overruled most of the ACLU’s early litigation challenges to Sarah O. Clifton’s suit, finding only that she fell short in her harassment claim against Jessica Farris, who was the plaintiff’s supervisor and the organization’s director of criminal justice and drug policy.
“Plaintiff does not allege any actual conduct by Ms. Farris, but rather alleges that plaintiff perceived Ms. Farris as uncomfortable around her and thus would avoid making any sudden movements in her presence,” Takasugi wrote. “Plaintiff did not cite any case law which could show that Ms. Farris’ allegedly racially-based fear of plaintiff, which was not accompanied by any words or physical conduct, could constitute severe and pervasive harassment against plaintiff.”
On the other hand, the judge found Clifton had presented a prima facie showing of alleged harassment by the ACLU of Southern California’s executive director, Hector Villagra. The judge wrote that during a staff meeting, Villagra “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 court finds that the allegations against Mr. Villagra are sufficient at this stage to support a showing of harassment,” Takasugi wrote, but he also noted that the ACLU may choose to argue later in the case that harassment based on a single incident “must often be severe in the extreme.”
The judge also denied a defense motion to strike the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages and gave Clifton 20 days to file an amended complaint.
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.
Even a Black celebrity such as 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 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.