The New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender is being accused of a systemic culture of workplace sexual harassment, abuse and retaliation against women who report problems, according to a lawsuit filed recently.
Kathy Genao, a former senior secretary for the Office of the Public Defender in Las Cruces, claims she was repeatedly tormented by a colleague, Javier Diaz, a former investigator at the office. Genao also witnessed Diaz harassing other women but was discouraged from reporting his behavior, the lawsuit says.
When she did, the lawsuit says, she was retaliated against and ultimately felt forced to resign.
The Public Defender’s Office is being accused of violating the New Mexico Human Rights Act and the Whistleblower Protection Act, and Genao is seeking damages, double back pay with interest and attorney’s fees and costs. Diaz also is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Chief Public Defender Ben Baur said he had not seen the lawsuit and said, “It would be inappropriate for us to comment on it at this time.
“We take any allegations of misconduct very seriously at all levels of the department and address concerns and complaints thoroughly,” he said.
Diaz, reached by phone, confirmed he left the Public Defender’s office in October, but said it was unrelated to sexual harassment issues. When told about the allegation listed against him in the lawsuit, Diaz said, “No, that is a complete denial on all of that for me. Those allegations did not occur.”
He said he was not aware of any concerns related sexual to harassment with his former employer.
Genao’s lawsuit alleges that soon after she was hired March 3, 2018, she began observing Diaz’s “hypersexualized workplace conduct,” but senior staff did nothing to correct it, according to the lawsuit.
Roughly 2½ months after she was hired, Diaz called Genao into his office, “closed the door and told her he saw how she looked at him.”
He then placed his crotch in her face, and said, “If you like what you see, you can come back,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says Genao also saw Diaz engaged in sexual, possibly violent, behavior with another female colleague at the office and feared staying late alone with Diaz. When she told another colleague she wanted to report Diaz, the colleague said “she would have a target on her back” and discouraged Genao from doing so.
Only after Diaz was placed on administrative leave and removed from the office in October did Genao come forward, the lawsuit says.
However, after Genao reported Diaz’s conduct to a human resources investigator, the lawsuit says, other colleagues retaliated against her, suddenly sending a high volume of calls to her desk line, moving her desk to a remote location and accusing her of gossiping.
“The conditions became so intolerable she was forced to resign,” the lawsuit says.
Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney for the plaintiff, said in an interview the conditions of harassment and retaliation Genoa experienced did not occur in isolation; other women at the Las Cruces office and other public defender offices in New Mexico also were affected, she said.
“There is good indication at this point, at least from the handful of people I represent, that there is a larger problem,” Schauer Ives said.
In addition to the other harassment witnessed by Genao, the lawsuit says Diaz’s misconduct was reported by another staff member in February 2018, before Genao was hired.
In December 2018, a former attorney in the state Public Defender’s Office in Clovis filed a lawsuit alleging the former second-in-command of the statewide Law Offices of the Public Defender, Chandler Blair, had sexually assaulted her.
Jocelyn Garrison accused Blair in the lawsuit 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,” The New Mexican reported at the time.
“When there are reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, the only reasonable response is to investigate it immediately and protect the women who reported it,” the suit said.