Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
When Kelly Rossi was called into a meeting at the District Attorney’s Office in Las Cruces by her supervisors about a high-profile murder case, she said, she was told her appearance would help their case.
“You know we want a pretty, young prosecutor at the table. One of the defense attorneys is an attractive woman, and we want to make sure the jury’s eyes are on our table,” Rossi said she was told during the meeting with District Attorney Mark D’Antonio and his Chief Deputy DA Gerald Byers in April 2017.
“Nothing had prepared me for that moment. Nothing had prepared me for the way it made me feel. It was humiliating,” Rossi said in a recent interview.
She became the fifth attorney in the DA’s Office working on the case.
It’s just one example of the “rampant sex discrimination, harassment and retaliation” detailed in a lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico on behalf of three women who worked as assistant district attorneys until last summer.
A spokeswoman for the DA’s office in Las Cruces did not return phone calls or an email from the Journal requesting comment on the lawsuit or allegations.
The lawsuit alleges the 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office violated the Fair Pay Act for women, the Whistleblower Protection Act and the state Constitution’s Free Speech Clause.
“It was just really egregious behavior in an office tasked with protecting people’s rights,” said ACLU New Mexico staff attorney Maria Martinez Sanchez.
Rossi spoke to the Journal about her decision to join her former colleagues at the DA’s office, Cassandra Brulotte and Rebecca Duffin, in bringing the lawsuit.
“I hope that, because of us speaking out and raising our voices, I’m hoping future victims of Doña Ana County will be able to feel confident in the prosecutors handling their case and confident that the office is run in an ethical way,” Rossi said.
The lawsuit calls into question the DA’s Office ethics and more with detailed accounts of the women assistant district attorneys being “paid less than their male counterparts and facing retaliation when they raised concerns about gender discrimination to their superiors.”
“I think it contributes to an office culture of impunity where no one is held accountable and there’s no transparency,” Rossi said. “You can raise these issues but it will fall on deaf ears.”
The lawsuit alleges that the three women assistant district attorneys had heavier case loads but were paid less, were passed over for promotions and did not get raises like some of the male prosecutors, who had equal or less experience. The lawsuit is seeking damages including unpaid wages.
The women also allege that they faced sexism on the job. Brulotte raised concerns with human resources after she was told to smile at everyone she passed in the office, according to the complaint.
“I didn’t walk around smiling all of the time, because I was dealing with gender discrimination and 400 domestic violence and sexual assault cases, many of which were extremely upsetting,” Brulotte said in a statement released by ACLU announcing the lawsuit. “No male colleague I spoke with was ever asked to smile more.”
Brulotte and Duffin were suspended, then fired last summer after Byers ordered them to remove “No Mansplaining” signs from their office doors because the statement was “sexist against men,” according to the lawsuit. He also ordered Rossi to take a similar sign down. She resigned a few weeks after she was placed on administrative leave.
“Employees still have certain levels of free speech even when they’re on the job,” Martinez Sanchez said.
According to the lawsuit, Duffin’s replacement was a man who had a starting annual salary $16,000 more than hers but less experience, while Rossi’s replacement had less prosecutorial experience but started at $12,000 more a year than she was making when she left.
The three women had a combined load of more than 700 cases, including violent felonies, domestic violence and crimes against children, said Rossi, who said she worries about the impact on victims and delays caused because the DA’s Office lost three assistant district attorneys at once last summer.
“I think for the community, justice delayed is justice denied,” Rossi said. “People are impacted by the mismanagement of the office. And the gender inequality that is going on in this office just has wider ramifications.”