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San Diego County pays $4 million in wrongful termination lawsuits by former public defenders

The San Diego Superior Court is shown in this undated photo.
Milan Kovacevic
The San Diego Superior Court is shown in this undated photo.

San Diego County has paid nearly $4 million in recent weeks to settle two former deputy public defenders’ wrongful termination lawsuits alleging discrimination and retaliation.

The county cut a check for $900,000 to ex-deputy public defender Michelle Reynoso, according to her lawyer Christopher Ludmer. Reynoso had alleged she was fired in 2020 because of her advocacy work for Black Lives Matter during her off hours. Despite receiving excellent performance reviews, Reynoso stated in her lawsuit that she was told at the time of her termination that she was not a good fit for the office’s culture.

The county did not respond to an interview request.


Ludmer contends county officials settled Reynoso’s case to avoid a repeat of what happened when they tried to defend themselves in court against a 2021 lawsuit filed by former deputy public defender Zach Davina, who is gay.

A jury found in January that the public defender’s office failed to prevent discrimination and retaliation against Davina for his gender expression and awarded him $2.6 million for lost pay and emotional suffering.

“The county realized it was looking at what was probably another very large jury verdict,” Ludmer said. “They saw the writing on the wall.”

County officials have also agreed not to appeal the jury verdict in the Davina lawsuit, said Ludmer, who also represents Davina.

“The evidence was so overwhelming against the county in Zach’s case and the county witnesses had so little credibility as evidenced by what the jurors all talked about after that case was over," Ludmer said. "The county realized they really stood no chance on any appeal, and they'd end up paying more money because of interest.”


He added that he hopes the $4 million financial hit from the lawsuits will motivate the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to clean up what he calls a culture of corrupt leadership and fear and retribution in the Public Defender's office.

Both Reynoso and Davina claimed in their lawsuits they were retaliated against after complaining about what they believed were racist comments made by a supervisor to a Black and Latino colleague. That supervisor then sat on their tenure review panels.

Also, during Davina’s trial, San Diego County Public Defender Randy Mize testified that he signed off on an HR investigative report looking into discrimination complaints, despite knowing it contained false statements by four supervisors.

Corrected: March 7, 2023 at 5:01 PM PST
Editor's Note: A previous version of the radio story incorrectly stated the settlement amount in the case of former Deputy Public Defender Michelle Reynoso.