A federal court jury exonerated the city of Sacramento on Tuesday on charges that it violated the family-leave rights of a staffer who was fired by City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby.
The panel returned its verdict after about three hours of deliberations following last week’s civil trial in front of U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr.
Sarah R. Novo, Ashby’s former director of constituent affairs, filed the lawsuit four years ago. She claimed the city violated the federal Family Medical Leave Act when she was let go from her job in March 2012.
Ashby said after the verdict that the city “acted lawfully and within our guidelines” and “with the best interests of serving the people of Sacramento as our first priority.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“It was difficult over the past several years – and, of course, most notably in the trial over the past week or so – to see the city accused of things, to hear my own name attached to those accusations, when I am a firm believer in the Family Leave Medical Act, and particularly in supporting women,” Ashby said.
Novo, 36, claimed she was entitled to benefits under the FMLA to care for her husband and one of her three children who had become ill during a toxic mold outbreak at the Granite Bay home they rented. The city maintained that Novo never notified Ashby about the family illnesses.
Novo, who is now working as a code enforcement officer for the city of Rocklin, declined to comment on the verdict.
In his closing arguments Tuesday, Novo’s attorney, Robert F. Koehler Jr., asked for $202,000 in lost wages and other damages.
Koehler said outside of court that he thought he proved the case for his client. He argued to the jury that he found it inconceivable that Ashby would not have known about the circumstances of a key employee’s life.
“When you see friends or co-workers, and you greet them, what do you say?” he said. “You ask them, ‘How are you doing, how are the kids?’ You share their familiar circumstances.”
One juror interviewed after the verdict said it was an easy one to reach.
“It was kind of an open-and-shut case,” said Matthew Grigsby, who is from Redding.
Testifying at trial, Ashby said she viewed Novo and as smart and hard-working. Senior Assistant City Attorney Kathleen Rogan said her her closing argument Tuesday that Ashby gave Novo a recommendation for her current job in Rocklin.
Ashby testified that she first met Novo before she was elected to the City Council, when Novo worked as a code enforcement officer. Elected in 2010, Ashby made Novo one of her first hires as director of constituent affairs.
“I was thrilled to have her on my team,” Ashby testified. “Then when we got in the office those first few weeks of transition she was terrific, very helpful.”
Ashby said that early on in her tenure, Novo, with three young children, asked if she could work on occasion out of her Granite Bay home. “I told her no, that wouldn’t work, and it did concern me that she asked, but I didn’t blame her for asking,” Ashby testified. “I figured she was trying to figure out that home-work-life balance.”
“I have kids, too,” Ashby said. “I’ve been a mom most of my adult life, so I felt like I could offer her some support in those areas.”
Koehler, in his argument to the jury, said Novo deserved family leave benefits after her husband, Nick, suffered from a “chronic serious health condition” related to the toxic mold growth, which he said Ashby knew about but did nothing to try and accommodate.
Koehler grew emotional when he recounted for the jury how Novo gave up an opportunity to go back on the city payroll in 2010 after being laid off as a code enforcement officer. Instead, she went to work without pay for Ashby before the councilwoman was sworn into office.
“Angelique Ashby said, ‘You work for me for the next two months for free, and I’ll own you for 24/7, and any time you get out of line, I’ll fire you, and I’ll cause you to lose your employment with the city,’ ” Koehler said. “I submit to you, there is something terribly wrong with that.”
In her closing arguments, Rogan, the city’s attorney, said that Ashby “picked Ms. Novo (for the city job). She believed in her abilities and wanted her to succeed.”
For the 16 months that Novo worked in the councilwoman’s office, Ashby “supported Ms. Novo,” Rogan said, and “gave her time off to take care of her affairs.”
Rogan argued that Novo appeared to have become “overwhelmed by the chaos going on in her life” and was let go because “she couldn’t keep up with the demands of her personal life as well as the demands of the office.”
Rogan said Ashby grew concerned with Novo as the employee showed up at the office occasionally in a “disheveled” condition and appearing increasingly to be “stressed.”
Ashby knew Novo had moved in and out of a couple of houses and several hotels and motels, Rogan said, and “those issues, understandably, were taking priority.”
It wasn’t just the moving that contributed to what the defendants called the “chaos” in Novo’s life.
During the trial, Ashby testified that Novo bought herself a horse, “and that did call her away a few times” from the office. “She ended up once getting kicked by the horse,” and the horse also once wound up loose.
All the while, Rogan said, Ashby never was told and never knew about Nick Novo’s medical issues, none of which were ever mentioned in a series of text messages the councilwoman and the staffer exchanged as the employee’s work became more erratic.