Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby knew that “chaos” had overrun the life of her former employee, Sarah R. Novo, when she fired her five years ago.
But the issue of a federal court trial that got underway Monday in Sacramento is whether Ashby knew the cause of the disorder in Novo’s life – a toxic mold outbreak that had sickened members of the staffer’s family.
Novo, who worked as Ashby’s director of constituent affairs for 16 months, sued Ashby and the city in March 2013 on the grounds that they violated her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act when they terminated her. The case now is in front of U.S. District Court Judge Morrison C. England.
Novo, 36, had served as an animal control and code enforcement officer for the city before she went to work for Ashby. She is asking for compensatory damages in excess of $300,000 over the circumstances of her 2012 termination, which she claims was brought on by the city’s failure to give her time off to care for family members that became ill from mold in their Granite Bay home.
“They played fast and loose with Ms. Novo, and that’s why we’re here today,” her Sacramento lawyer, Robert F. Koehler Jr., told the federal court jury in his opening statement.
Deputy City Attorney Kathleen Rogan countered in her opening remarks to the jury that all Ashby knew was that Novo – in spite of a stellar performance in her first year or so on the job as the face of the councilwoman’s office in the Natomas community – was missing work, and that her absence was putting inordinate pressure on the two other key staffers in the office.
As Novo and her family moved homes and then into “several” motels in 2011 and 2012, Rogan said that “not a single time did Councilwoman Ashby know it was to take care of a sick daughter and a sick husband.”
Ashby, who was named in Novo’s initial complaint, has since been dismissed as a defendant, although she is attending the trial with a seat at the defense table.
In her lawsuit, Novo, who took a job in November 2010 with newly elected council member Ashby, claimed that Ashby first offered her a management-level job as district director at $68,000. It wasn’t until she accepted the job, Novo claimed, that she discovered that she had been hired to a rank-and-file executive assistant’s position.
Still, Novo maintained that she excelled in the post, which she described as a de facto district director’s job. “Great work Sarah, you are kicking ass,” Ashby texted to Novo on Feb. 13, 2012, according to the lawsuit.
Difficulties, however, already had begun to set in for Novo. As early as December 2011, Novo and her family were dealing with issues relating to what she described as a toxic mold growth in a rental home that she and her family had occupied in Granite Bay. Koehler, in his opening statement, said that Ashby at first was supportive of Novo’s need to take time off to deal with her disrupted home life.
“You need to get your sanity back,” Koehler quoted Ashby as telling Novo. “You need to get the chaos out of your life.”
Novo claimed that her husband and one of their three children became seriously ill from the mold, although Ashby’s court papers assert that the employee never told the councilwoman “that her family was suffering any serious medical condition or that there was any connection between the mold and any such condition.”
Nevertheless, Novo said she took a brief sick leave to care for one of her daughters. Eventually, Novo said in the lawsuit, she began to suffer from “cumulative stress” on her own and that she “experienced heart palpitations, shortness of breath, fatigue/exhaustion, mental fog and an overwhelmed feeling” from having to move the family out of the house and into a motel.
Ashby told Novo in early March 2012 to take a week off to tend to her family’s medical and housing needs, according to the lawsuit. But on March 19, Novo’s complaint said, “Ashby stated to plaintiff that she ‘… needed someone who is one hundred percent, that you are not one hundred percent,’ and that (Ashby) felt the plaintiff could not give this effort, (so) it was best to part ways so that Ashby could find someone who could give one hundred percent.”
Ashby agreed that she fired Novo on March 19 in a meeting in which she told the employee that she was being let go “because she simply was not dedicated to the job in a way that Ashby felt was necessary,” the city said in court papers.
In her testimony Monday, Novo said that Ashby told her she would get back to her with a “Plan B” job with the city, in another capacity, but that she never did. Novo testified she would have been willing to return to work as an animal control officer again if there were an opening.
“I had planned to retire with the city,” Novo told the jury. “I had a vested interest in making the city an awesome place.”
Rogan, the deputy city attorney, said that Novo, whom Ashby first met when the councilwoman was still a Natomas community activist, was “very bright.” She said Novo had begun asking to work from home but that was “not possible” given the nature of the face time she needed to put into her constituency work.
A week after her termination, Novo asked Ashby for time off under the Family Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act, effective March 20. Novo said in the lawsuit that she was notified by the city on April 2, 2012, that she had been fired.
The city, Novo claimed, had been obliged to notify her of the provisions of the FMLA as early as December 2011, when she first told them of her troubles with the toxic mold. The trial brief filed on behalf of Ashby and the city said that Novo never asked for a medical leave of absence.