Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The Public Defender’s Office in New Mexico agreed to pay $345,000 this month as part of two settlements to resolve claims that one of its investigators harassed two staff members.
The two lawsuits, filed a few months apart in 2019, accused then-investigator Javier Diaz of inappropriate behavior – such as standing to put his crotch in front of the face of a female secretary and rubbing his genitals on the back of male investigator.
Attorneys for Diaz and the Law Offices of the Public Defender denied the allegations in their own legal filings. The settlements don’t constitute an admission of fault.
Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Monday her clients hope the settlements lead to a new culture in the public defender’s office.
“They were struggling with a very serious problem with repeat sexual harassment that went unaddressed,” Schauer Ives said in an interview. “Our clients really, really don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
In a written statement, Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said his agency works to respond quickly and appropriately when an allegation “comes to our attention.”
“The employee accused of these actions in our Las Cruces office was promptly removed from the workplace during the investigation,” Baur said, “and he is no longer with the department. We are always looking to learn lessons so we can ensure professional and supportive working conditions in our offices.”
Diaz, for his part, released a statement through his attorney maintaining that he “denies the allegations of the suits. LOPD decided to settle the cases.”
The two settlements this month come after the Law Offices of the Public Defender agreed in November to pay $750,000 to settle a third lawsuit, alleging sexual harassment, violations of the Fair Pay for Women Act and other claims.
Altogether, the public defender’s office has paid nearly $1.1 million as part of the three settlements.
In the larger of this month’s settlements, the state agreed to pay $215,000 to resolve claims by Kathy Genao, who had worked as a senior secretary in the public defender’s office in Las Cruces.
She accused Diaz of “hypersexualized workplace conduct” and said his behavior was reported multiple times to a supervisor, according to her lawsuit.
His harassment of Genao, she alleged, included inviting her into his office, closing the door and then standing up while she was seated so that his crotch was directly in front of her face with “an obvious erection that was visible through his pants to her.”
Diaz made inappropriate comments almost daily, the lawsuit says, including telling her that she looked delicious and “if you know what’s best for you, you will give me what I want.”
Genao also alleges that she was retaliated against after speaking to a human resources representative and later resigned because conditions were so intolerable.
Her suit asserted violations of the New Mexico Human Rights Act and Whistleblower Protection Act.
Diaz, a former police officer, denied Genao’s allegations in his reply to the lawsuit.
As part of the settlement, the public defender’s office agreed to certain procedures for interviewing employees in future investigations and to conduct follow-up checks after sexual harassment complaints “to see if the work environment has improved.”
Schauer Ives said the policy requirements were a key part of the settlement for Genao.
Ensuring “this never happens again was important to her,” Schauer Ives said.
Diaz and the Law Offices of the Public Defender also faced allegations in a second lawsuit, filed by a fellow investigator, Raymond Hernandez – a complaint settled for $130,000 this month.
Hernandez accused Diaz of harassment that included “body shaming, badgering and name calling,” according to the lawsuit.
In one incident, the lawsuit said, Diaz “began rubbing his genitals against” Hernandez’s back and requesting oral sex – allegations Diaz and the public defender’s office specifically deny.
Hernandez said he reported the misconduct and later faced retaliation.
His lawsuit alleges battery for “offensive contact” and violations of the Human Rights Act and Whistleblower Protection Act.
In their reply to the lawsuit, Diaz and the public defender’s office acknowledged that Diaz harassed Hernandez but denied the other allegations.