LOS ANGELES – A judge has fined the ACLU more than $4,500 for allegedly failing to turn over all documents sought by counsel for a Black former attorney for the civil rights organization, who alleges she was subjected to racism, portrayed as an angry woman and wrongfully fired in 2020 for complaining.
Having heard arguments on May 20 and taken the case under submission, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jon R. Takasugi issued a final ruling Wednesday granting plaintiff Sarah O. Clifton’s motion in full to order that the documents be produced by June 20 and to fine the ACLU $4,560, which he says could have been avoided had the organization not committed an “abuse of the discovery process.”
The suit was filed in June 2020 against the ACLU of Southern California, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, stating that Clifton’s case is “a matter of urgent public concern” in light of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the “resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
ACLU of Southern California Executive Director Hector Villagra also is a defendant.
In his ruling, Takasugi noted that ACLU attorneys argued that they gathered and collected nearly 200,000 pages of electronic data in 2020 and produced over 110,000 pages of documents in 2021, then said all remaining documents would be produced by May 1.
However, the remainder of the documents had not been turned over by May 13, despite the judge’s warning during a March conference that failing to do so could result in a fine, Takasugi wrote.
“While the court understands the burdens of large document production, at no time did (the ACLU) seek (an order) to shield them from the production, nor have defendants adequately justified their inability to produce by their own provided deadlines,” the judge wrote.
The ACLU has “repeatedly treated production deadlines as recommended guidelines rather than statutory obligations,” Takasugi added.
Takasugi ruled in October that 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.”
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, 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 appointed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals by then-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.