The state Law Offices of the Public Defender will pay $750,000 to a former employee who said her supervisor — then second in command of the agency — sexually assaulted her and, when she reported it, the agency chose to protect him instead of her.
The state Risk Management Division spent $152,000 in legal fees fighting the case before agreeing to settle it last month. In exchange for the settlement, Jocelyn Garrison, who worked as a managing attorney in the Public Defender’s Office in Clovis before resigning in 2018, agreed to drop her lawsuit against the agency and former Deputy Chief Defender Chandler Blair.
Garrison’s lawsuit accused Blair of “choking her with such force that he left marks on her neck,” hitting her on her genitals and whispering in her ear that she was “a freak” and “she liked it like that.”
Her December 2018 lawsuit also accused the state agency — which has hundreds of employees around the state — of violating the New Mexico Human Rights Act and Whistleblower Protection Act by failing to do anything when she reported the alleged abuse. The suit also alleges the agency violated the Fair Pay for Women Act by paying men more than women for the same work.
“Had the Public Defender’s Office taken seriously their responsibility to ensure women are safe in the workplace and to investigate claims, this [never] would have happened,” Garrison’s attorney, Laura Ives, said Thursday. “They wouldn’t have had to pay defense counsel to defend this lawsuit, they wouldn’t have had to pay this settlement, and [Garrison] would have been able to continue to do the job she loved doing and was good at doing.
“Hopefully, our government entities will learn a lesson and do the right thing instead of trying to protect powerful men in the future,” Ives said.
“While I believe a jury would have found in our favor, had we gone to trial and a jury found any violation, taxpayers would have been on the hook for not just an award for the plaintiff, but potentially an additional $400,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs,” Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said in an email sent by a spokeswoman Thursday. “We couldn’t take that chance, no matter how slim it might be, nor could we justify forcing a trial during COVID-19 conditions.
“We are confident that the issues alleged in the case are not systemic at the [Law Offices of the Public Defender], and we’ve worked hard over the years to make sure they are not. An outside expert specializing in sexual harassment and employment law has provided trainings for all [Law Offices of the Public Defender] employees to raise awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and make sure everyone really understands their rights and responsibilities.”
In addition to accusing Blair of assaulting her, Garrison said in her complaint Blair had openly conducted a romantic relationship with a paralegal who had virtually no duties — resulting in tension between the paralegal and other female staffers — gawked at and made suggestive comments to women in the office and called them “bitches.”
Blair also hired the woman’s daughter to work as a secretary in the Clovis office but gave her limited responsibilities, the complaint said, and allowed her to do online coursework for outside classes instead of doing work she was paid to do for taxpayers.
Blair initially denied having a sexual relationship with the employee, court records show, but later admitted during a deposition that they had been involved romantically.
And Ives said Thursday that Baur kept Blair on as an employee even after Garrison made her complaint, despite recommendations from human resources and another agency official that he be fired or demoted. When Blair left the Public Defender’s Office, Ives said, it was voluntary and not a result of being fired or asked to resign. Garrison and a female attorney in the office of District Attorney Andrea Reeb of Clovis had both lodged complaints against Blair with the New Mexico Disciplinary Board, but the board declined to take action.
A lawyer on the board said at the time that decision was made in part because of insufficient evidence and in part because the state Rules of Professional Conduct only govern the behavior of lawyers in relation to their clients, not in their workplace.