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San Diego County Public Defender Office sued for discrimination, retaliation

Allegations regarding a San Diego County Public Defender supervisor’s use of racist terminology — are scheduled to be aired in Superior Court soon. KPBS Investigative Reporter Amita Sharma has details.

Allegations made by two attorneys — who say they were forced out of the San Diego County Public Defender Office after complaining about racist terminology used by a supervisor — are scheduled to be aired in Superior Court in the coming months.

Former deputy public defenders Zachary Davina and Michelle Reynoso filed lawsuits in 2021 against San Diego County. They allege that in late 2020 they were fired in part because they asked that Sherry Stone, a supervisor in the office, be disciplined for using the word “lynch” in response to criticism from Andre Bollinger, a lawyer who is Black and Latino.

Stone personally attacked Bollinger, calling him “lazy” during an August 2020 Public Defender Association (PDA) board meeting right after he told panel members they were alienating attorneys of color, according to a court filing by Reynoso as part of her suit.

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Sources told KPBS Bollinger is widely respected in the office and a talented trial lawyer.

But Stone, a PDA board member who is Asian, allegedly scolded Bollinger, saying “how dare he try to `lynch’ her or the PDA Board given his low acumen and poor performances,” according to Reynoso’s court filing.

Bollinger could not be reached for comment.

In October 2020, just over a month after Stone’s alleged comments at the board meeting, she sat on Davina’s and Reynoso’s tenure review panels and made recommendations about their continued employment, said Christopher Ludmer, a lawyer who represents both attorneys in their lawsuits.

Emails filed as exhibits in the lawsuit show Stone knew before those tenure review panels that Davina and Reynoso were among a group of deputy public defenders who complained about her remarks to Bollinger. The group had also asked that Stone receive diversity training and be removed as a supervisor in the office.

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Davina’s lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial in December, states that Stone told him during the tenure review that “slights against co-workers will come back to you.”

Pictured above is former San Diego County Deputy Public Defender Zach Davina in an undated photo.
Courtesy of Zach Davina
Pictured above is former San Diego County Deputy Public Defender Zach Davina in an undated photo.

Reynoso, who declined to speak to KPBS, alleges in her lawsuit that during her tenure review panel, she was “grilled” about her political views and activities outside of work. She says Stone “harshly interrogated” her on her views as to why the Public Defender’s Office “should be more active in ‘social justice.’”

This occurred even though Reynoso contends San Diego County Public Defender Randy Mize himself had asked her to give input on those issues.

“None of that had anything to do with Ms. Reynoso’s job qualifications as a deputy public defender,” said her lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial in February.

Reynoso’s lawsuit against the county also claims she received an “exceeds expectations” job appraisal two weeks before her tenure review panel.

Mize was deposed in the lawsuit. When asked whether he had a problem or saw a conflict of interest with Stone judging the work performance of an employee who had complained about her, Mize said, “no,” according Reynoso's court filing.

Mize also claimed in his deposition that he never spoke to Stone about her alleged comments to Bollinger, asking, “Why would I?”

Reynoso alleges in her lawsuit she was told she was losing her job a month after her tenure review panel because of her ‘inability to fit the office culture.”

The county has denied all allegations in their court filings responding to the lawsuits brought by Davina and Reynoso.

Stone, Mize and the San Diego County Counsel’s office all refused interview requests regarding the lawsuits. The County Counsel said the office does not discuss pending litigation, “especially on the eve of trial. However, the County looks forward to bringing these cases to a jury to hear the facts.”

'Not a good fit'

Davina alleges in his lawsuit that he was also asked to resign from the office or be fired because he was “not a good fit” for the organization’s “culture.”

Davina, who is gay, said his supervisors told him the “disparagements he faced” about his sexual orientation and gender expression were “too insurmountable even for his impressive work as an attorney,” his suit said.

He said in an interview with KPBS that his troubles started in July 2020 when he came out before a diversity panel for LGBTQ lawyers. He said he thought the move and the visibility it brought would help younger gay lawyers and motivate the legal profession and the Public Defender Office to be more welcoming to people like him.

”That's why I shared what it was like growing up and why I chose to be a public defender,” Davina said. “Why that lined up with who I am, with my identity, and why I thought and I still feel that I identified with clients and those who can be othered because of who they are and what they've experienced.”

He said the backlash was immediate.

“I had supervisors reach out directly and express their concern about me bringing up that statement and sort of critiquing the office in that sense,” Davina said.

He also started hearing negative comments from others in the office about his pierced ears, hair and nail polish, according to his lawsuit. The suit alleges the pressure was so great that at one point after a trial, Davina told his supervisor, “I cut my hair and took off my nail polish like you said.”

Davina said he had received stellar job performance assessments and he had hoped his tenure review panel would offer him honest feedback and new ideas on how he could do his job even better.

But he said that never happened.

“The second or maybe third question after 'How are you’ was, `You’re pretty animated and flamboyant. Don’t you think that hurts your clients?,” Davina said. “It became very clear it wasn’t a question of what is actually professional or what is actually right as a public defender, but why aren’t you acting straight?”

Davina said his clients never complained about his appearance or speaking style. As a result, he said, the meaning of the tenure review panel’s line of questioning was unmistakable.

“It’s, you are too much,” Davina said. “You are too gay. You are too different.”

The realization shocked him.I felt like the blood drained down my face,” he said. “But I tried to stiffen up and get through it and give them as good a conversation as I could.”

'Fighting injustice'

Davina said he filed his lawsuit against the Public Defender Office for the same reason he applied to work there.

”It’s fighting injustice,” he said. “The only way we become better for each other in this system is fighting for each other and allowing each other to speak freely, openly and honestly about who we are and protecting each other.” 

Ludmer said he’s appalled that the county’s own equal opportunity policy does not specifically include gender expression, even though the protection exists in the California statute. Ludmer also said many of the county’s anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation policies are so antiquated they don’t even include sexual orientation.

What kind of a message does that send if the county doesn't even care enough to conform its own policies to the law and say, discrimination against these protected classes is illegal,?” Ludmer said.

Ludmer added that because the alleged discrimination came from “lawyers, members of the bar, makes this case even worse.”

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