The San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury is recommending that the county hire an independent consultant to conduct a thorough review of the Office of the Public Defender after an investigation determined that a lack of professionalism and respect has contributed to turmoil and an inordinate number of lawsuits.
The scathing report indicated that many of the allegations that were raised were not substantiated, however the turmoil in the office contributed to division and disruption and that even though the Public Defender followed the county’s HR policies, the problems continued to escalate.
The Office of the Public Defender provides legal services to those who cannot afford legal counsel in San Joaquin County.
According to the grand jury’s findings, over the past five years the office has had the highest number of Equal Employment Opportunity lawsuits in the entire county and some of those lawsuits have risen through the ranks to become some of the most expensive that the county as a whole has ever processed.
In the last four years the county has spent more than $250,000 on outside consultants, and earlier this year the Board of Supervisors partially settled a lawsuit for $2.15 million. The report notes that even though insurance will cover more than half of the cost of that lawsuit, more than $2.4 million in taxpayer dollars has spent on the matters, and with two plaintiffs choosing to not yet settle, “the end is not yet in sight.”
A chart contained with the report shows that the public defender’s office has more than double the number of EEO lawsuits filed against it that the second-most in the county, and significantly more than nearly every other major county division – including those with significantly more employees like the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.
The core investigation undertaken by the grand jury was launched after 22 deputy public defenders signed a letter requesting an independent, outside investigation after it was alleged that a deputy public defender entered into the office of one of their colleagues who was not at work at the time and accessed the confidential file and then provided that information to a private attorney – something that the report described as being seen by staffers as a “violation of trust and ethics” and referred to the move as an “irregular and unprecedented act.”
The formation of cliques within the environment that some staffers had described as previously been like that of a “family” helped fuel a work environment that the report described as “toxic”
With employee issues arising that were not addressed in a timely fashion festering, and with complaints mounting and the actions of some in the office being described as fostering “division and disruption,” the grand jury found that the foundation of a major disruption in the way that the office operations had been laid and led to even more problems down the road.
“These ingredients brought about a ‘perfect storm’ of discontent, conflict, and disrespectful communication that clearly affected the atmosphere and culture within the Public Defender’s office and led to preventable and costly lawsuits,” the report’s conclusion states. “Trust in the process is being restored, however it is evident that a rift remains.
“An independent review of the Department can address the structural organization of the Office and identify best practices in the areas of training, continuing education, and professional development. Doing so will enable the San Joaquin County Public Defender’s Office to take actions necessary to create a cohesive and positive work environment.”
The office and the county will have a chance to respond to the findings and the recommendations that were described in detail in the report.
To view the report or other work completed by the body visit https://www.sjcourts.org/divisions/civil-grand-jury.
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email email@example.com or call 209.249.3544.