State Public Defender Agency Settles Gender Pay-Gap Lawsuit

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Several female attorneys and investigators at the state Law Offices of the Public Defender are getting raises to resolve a lawsuit that alleged unfair compensation in comparison with better-paid male colleagues.

Five employees at the public defender's offices are receiving raises to resolve discrimination claims, according to settlement documents obtained Wednesday, The agency provides legal representation in state courts to those who can't afford an attorney. It has more than 400 employees.

The public defender's offices also paid out $450,000 to end the lawsuit by eight female plaintiffs who alleged violations of the state's Fair Pay for Women Act, which mandates equal pay for equal work.

The lawsuit cited the agency's own gender equity study on pay from February 2018 as evidence of widespread pay inequities, and it claimed that the agency failed to rectify salary disparities or implement a system that would prevent a gender gap in compensation.

State Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said the 2018 study did not find widespread pay inequities as alleged, while he noted that efforts are underway to identify any broader pay disparities.

“This suit focused on several individual female employees and not the whole department,” Baur said in an email. “Still, we have undertaken a study of our salary structure to identify and address any broader pay disparities. No salary structure is perfect, but we have spent several years, and are still working on, implementing and trying to fund a structure that is as fair as possible for everyone in the department.”

He described “huge gains” in the recruitment, compensation and promotion of women in recent years. "More than half of our current leadership across the department, and on our executive team, are women," Baur said.

The plaintiffs to the lawsuit included two long-serving senior investigators, who said they were paid $14,500 less annually than the average male senior investigator at the agency. They said a newly hired male investigator also earned a higher salary.

The lawsuit also was brought by managing attorneys. an attorney specializing in violent criminal cases and a district defender who oversees Chavez, Eddy and Lea counties.

Separately, concerns about a gender gap in pay recently emerged in the upper echelons of New Mexico state government with a discrimination lawsuit filed in federal court by the former executive director of the Educational Retirement Board that oversees a multibillion pension fund for public school employees.

Pension executive Jan Goodwin alleges that the state refused to pay her at the same level as a man who oversees state investment trusts. She filed the lawsuit after leaving the Educational Retirement Board for a job with New Hampshire's public retirement system.

Women hold more than half of the state's Cabinet-level jobs under Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero previously sued to state for gender discrimination based on pay inequities when she was a deputy warden.

The Law Offices of the Public Defender is overseen by an independent commission. An attorney for the plaintiffs could not be reached immediately.