Did Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby fire an employee for getting sick?

Bites hopes the city acted within the law and didn't fire an employee for personal illness

Did Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby fire an employee for getting sick?

That’s the claim in a federal lawsuit by former Ashby staffer Sarah Novo. Novo was hired by Ashby in November 2010 to be the District 1 director of constituent affairs. She says in her court complaint that she was expected to be available 24-seven, and “worked a sixty-seventy hour work-week for Ashby’s political agendas,” but then was tossed aside when she later asked for time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The court file includes text messages between the two women that suggest Ashby was happy with Novo’s work. January 19, 2012, Ashby tells Novo, “Just want to say thank you for working so hard. You are doing a great job!”

In a February 2012 text, Ashby cheered, “Great work Sarah, you are kicking ass.” In Ashby’s annual district report at the end of 2011, Novo was praised thus: “Her ability to pull various levels of government agencies together is nothing short of remarkable.”

But outside of the job, things weren’t going as well. The Novos found out their family home had bad water damage and a severe mold problem. According to Novo’s court complaint, she and her husband and her three daughters suffered persistent coughs, fevers and running noses, headaches, nausea, stomach pains, vomiting, rashes and fatigue. One daughter had to be put on an inhaler. Her husband at one point needed help from a breathing machine.

The mold was so bad, that according to Novo’s complaint, the family had to move into a motel in February 2012, and then to her husband’s parents’ home.

From Novo’s account, she asked for a day off and to leave early on two other days in February 2012, for doctor appointments and to look for a new house. Then in March, she was given almost a week off to recuperate. Then on Saturday, March 17, Novo texted Ashby to ask if she wouldn’t mind if she missed the St. Patrick’s Day parade that day, in order to meet an insurance adjuster and check out a new residence.

“I don’t mind you missing the parade,” Ashby texted back, according to court papers. “The parade is not important, getting a home and your sanity are critical to your success in everything else.”

That was a Saturday. Novo had been at work Friday. But on Monday, according to Novo’s lawsuit, Ashby informed her that she, “needed someone who was one hundred percent.” Ashby then told her it was time for them to “part ways,” and that Ashby would get back to Novo with a “Plan B.”

Novo went home and waited to hear about “Plan B.” But she never did. On March 26, 2012, Novo delivered a letter to Ashby and to the city asking for time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the case of a serious health condition.

“The theory is that when people work for an organization and something happens in their life, they don’t suddenly lose their job,” says Novo’s attorney, Robert Koehler. On April 2, however, Novo received an email from the city saying that she was terminated, effective March 19.

Novo was never written up or warned that her work was deficient, according to her court filing. “Ashby was crazy about her, as long as she was working 60- or 70-hour weeks,” says Koehler, who describes Ashby as “flippant” in her treatment of Novo. “It’s just blind arrogance. Ashby’s so focused on her needs, she doesn’t realize that anyone else is in the room.”

Was Ashby flippant about Novo’s health and employment rights?

“I would love to tell you the other side of the story, but I can’t because it’s an HR matter,” Ashby told Bites. “It’s disappointing. It’s like not being able to defend yourself.”

Ashby might not want this lawsuit lingering into next year, when her re-election is underway. But then again, City Attorney Jim Sanchez is making confident noises, he told Bites. “The City and Vice Mayor Ashby acted reasonably and within the bounds of the law. We are prepared to defend the City and Vice Mayor Ashby in trial if necessary.”

Lots of people get fired and think it’s not fair. And we don’t yet know the other side of the story yet. But given Ashby’s self-styled fiscal conservatism, you’d think she’d be careful not to embroil the city in needless, costly lawsuits.

More importantly, anyone who’s had their life and their career scrambled by a health issue knows that an employer’s compassion, or lack thereof, is enormously important. So, while there may be other facts we don’t yet know, Bites hopes the city did act “reasonably” and “within the bounds of the law”—at the very least. A little compassion would be nice, too.