Abdullah Sall, a former legal assistant in the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office, plans to file an employment discrimination lawsuit against his former boss, newly appointed State’s Attorney Sarah George, his lawyer told Seven Days on Tuesday. The lawyer, John Franco, alleged that Sall faced “disparate treatment” in the office because he is a Muslim immigrant from Liberia.
In an interview with Seven Days earlier this month, George confirmed that she had let Sall go, but she declined to elaborate on her reasoning. Reached again Tuesday, she said she “cannot comment on specifics” of what she called “a personnel matter.”
“I would say that any time an employer has to make a decision, it’s guided by performance, the needs of the office and the law,” she said. “And I followed those principles when making my decision.”
Sall is currently running for the South District seat on the Burlington City Council. The independent is facing off against longtime incumbent Democratic Councilor Joan Shannon and Progressive challenger Charles Simpson.
In an interview Tuesday, Sall alleged that his firing may have been motivated by a desire to “undermine [his] campaign.” He did not offer evidence supporting that assertion.
According to Franco, Sall had been working as a legal assistant in the office since June 2016. He was recruited to the position by then-state’s attorney T.J. Donovan, who subsequently won election as attorney general. Roughly a week after Gov. Phil Scott appointed George to fill Donovan’s position last month, she fired Sall, Franco said.
“He was summoned into a meeting with her … and was told, without any warning, that he was being terminated because of too many mistakes; people didn’t understand him because of his accent; and he didn’t understand people who spoke to him,” Franco alleged.
“I know I’m wronged … I feel hurt by it,” Sall said, adding that to criticize his accent “is to criticize my identity as a person.”
According to the attorney, Sall had not previously been informed that his job performance was poor. He had completed his six-month probationary period last December.
“He’s African. He’s from Liberia. He’s Muslim,” Franco said. “The fact of the matter was he was subject to different treatment than other people in the office who did not share those qualities.”
Sall has not always been forthcoming about his employment status.
In an interview three weeks ago with Seven Days — after he was fired — Sall claimed he was still working for the state’s attorney’s office but had taken time off to work on his campaign. He said he would return to work in about two weeks. His campaign website continues to identify him as an employee of the office.
Sall explained Tuesday that Franco had urged him to avoid talking to the media about his employment situation, because the lawyer was hoping to convince George to reinstate him. According to Franco, he spent three weeks working to get Sall reinstated to the job but was ultimately unsuccessful.
Sall argued that his initial answer about his employment status was truthful because he remained on the payroll until early February. He said that changing his campaign website would have interfered with Franco’s attempts to save his job.
According to Sall, some of his former colleagues initally appeared to have “reservations” about him, and one was “so mean and so hostile.” He suggested they might have felt that he — as a Muslim, immigrant and black man — “doesn't know his place in the society.”
Sall said that, almost immediately after his termination, several friends who are attorneys offered their support and encouraged him to “tell the world what happened.” He refused to identify the friends because he worried that might “cause tension in the [legal] community,” he explained.
Before Sall can file suit in federal district court, he must file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Franco said he plans to initiate that process soon.
Sall said that even if he convinced George to reinstate him, he would only work for a week before tendering his resignation. The point, he said, was to tell the public that "Abdullah was wronged and Abdullah was trying to make things right."
Staff writer Paul Heintz contributed reporting.