The woman who headed the Santa Fe agency that provides free legal assistance to indigent defendants has filed a lawsuit against the Law Offices of the Public Defender, claiming her former employer retaliated against her for raising gender pay issues and supporting colleagues who did the same.

Morgan Wood, who headed the Santa Fe Public Defender’s Office for five years, said she was paid “far less than similarly situated male attorneys” despite her “exemplary performance,” according to her complaint, filed July 8 in state District Court in Santa Fe.

Wood was the district defender from 2014-19 in the Santa Fe office, where she supervised 25 employees in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Taos counties, according to her complaint. She was fired early this year.

Wood’s lawsuit accuses the agency of violating the Fair Pay for Women Act, New Mexico Human Rights Act and Whistleblower Protection Act.

The lawsuit is seeking an unspecified amount of unpaid or underpaid wages and benefits compensation for emotional distress and actual and punitive damages.

With a “Public Defender 4” classification, Wood says in her complaint the midpoint pay for her position was $69,709, but she received less than that and a similarly situated male employee was paid $6,628 more per year.

Wood’s lawsuit refers to a 2018 gender equity study she says revealed a gender pay gap existed at the agency and was known to the Public Defender Commission — which oversees and sets standards for the office — and Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur.

Five female employees who sued the Public Defender’s Office over gender pay disparities in 2018 also cited the study, claiming it showed “all female attorneys are paid less than male attorneys working for the office.”

“Reaching pay equity for all of our employees has been a priority for the department for the last several years,” Baur said through a spokeswoman. “We have not been served with Ms. Wood’s lawsuit, so we can’t comment specifically on her allegations.”

In 2018, Baur said the women in that still-pending lawsuit had “cherry picked” misleading statistics from the study, which was then conducted annually by the State Personnel Office.

But Baur acknowledged there were gender pay discrepancies at the time. “We are moving openly and expeditiously [to] address those disparities which still exist,” he said in June 2018.

Wood’s complaint says that after she was identified in June 2019 as a potential witness to the gender pay lawsuit filed by other women who had worked for the Public Defender’s Office, she faced “swift” retaliation. She was demoted in July 2019, according to her complaint, and the administration undermined her status and reputation throughout the fall of last year by telling co-workers she would soon be leaving.

On Jan. 27, Wood says in her complaint, she was fired on grounds that were “false and mere pretext for discrimination and retaliation.”

Wood says members of the Public Defender Commission “expressed concerns to Baur and others about the gender pay discrimination in the Department,” but Baur “failed and refused” to remedy the matter, according to the complaint.

In an email, Baur said the office’s “entire pay system is being examined,” adding the agency has been “working on fairness and equitable pay for all of our employees. Specific pay adjustments have been targeted at our lowest paying positions first, and now we are working our way through the whole department examining pay structures.”

(1) comment

Kathy Fish

I commend this woman's courage, and don't feel surprised, sadly, that this is taking place. It takes strength and major motivation, at the risk of job loss, to stand up against gender inequity in these types of settings. Thanks for helping to set a precedent against longtime nepotism and downright machismo in New Mexico and beyond.

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