Louisville public defenders take employer to court in labor dispute

Annie Zangari has always wanted to be a public defender representing those who cannot afford a lawyer. It’s something she wants to spend her life doing. And that’s why, fresh out of law school in 2018, she came to Louisville, a city she had no connection to, to take a job with the city’s public defender’s office.

But struggling with 350 active cases – and feeling like she received little guidance or oversight when dealing with cases involving serious crimes like rape and murder – she decided to leave the public defender’s office. of Louisville earlier this year.

“It got to the point where I was starting to burn out. I didn’t feel like the kind of lawyer I really wanted to be,” said Zangari, who is now a public defender in Philadelphia, where she currently has 90. active business.” And I think a lot of that was because of the conditions in Louisville.”

It was the kind of conditions Zangari described that led Louisville public defenders to vote to unionize in January of this year. They said they faced “unmanageable” workloads and lost colleagues to endless turnover. By unionizing, representatives of the Public Defenders Union say they hope to improve working conditions and better represent their indigent clients in the justice system.

But after that 32-5 vote to unionize under Local 369 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union said the Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation refused to negotiate in good faith.

Their employer, the Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation, will face trial on Wednesday, charged with violating the National Labor Relations Act, the longstanding federal law that guarantees private sector employees the right to s organize, strike and bargain collectively. .

In a lawsuit filed earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board accuses the Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation of violating labor laws by refusing to bargain collectively and refusing to provide the union with wage information. , hours and conditions of employment. . The complaint is based on charges brought by Local 369 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

A further charge that the Public Defender Corporation retaliated against a union member by outsourcing work to its division was dismissed in October, with the NLRB saying there was insufficient evidence the move was motivated by trade union activity.

Ben Basil, a lawyer for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 369, which represents the union, said the Public Defender Corporation only began to negotiate with the union and provide some of the requested information after the NLRB complaints.

“It’s not enough to get them out of legal trouble,” Basil said. “It would be like I stole your wallet and didn’t give it back to you, and then the police came and I was like, ‘Well, he can have it.’ Too late, I’ve already done it. That’s kind of where we’re at.

As negotiations began, Basil said: “At this stage, there are not many areas where we have been able to reach an agreement.”

According to Basil, high caseloads, inexperienced lawyers being awarded serious crimes, and compensation are some of the issues at the center of bargaining for the union. Louisville’s chief public defender Leo Smith declined to comment on the progress of negotiations, but said both sides have made offers and counter-offers so far.

Rejection by Public Defender Corporation

The Public Defender Corporation has pushed back against union organizing efforts, calling first on the Kentucky Bar Association and then the Kentucky Supreme Court that public defenders who join a union raise ethical concerns. In a notice dated October 20, the The Kentucky Supreme Court denied a request made by supervisors of the Public Defender Corporation to decide whether it was ethical for public defenders to join a union.

In an opinion, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton wrote that the petitioners were asking the court to “imagine and then resolve several hypothetical ethical situations.” He also wrote: “The petitioners argue that it is unethical for any lawyer in the Commonwealth to join a collective bargaining unit.

In an email, Chief Public Defender Smith said he did not understand why LEO Weekly was reporting on the case before Wednesday’s hearing instead of after its conclusion and said it was inappropriate for him to make “out-of-court statements or comments beyond what is set forth in the pleadings”.

In a September 20 response to Complaint from the NLRB, attorneys representing the Public Defender Corporation denied violating labor laws, saying they were waiting for the Kentucky Supreme Court to rule before starting the bargaining process and that, in addition, they had provided the information requested by the union, although several months later this information was requested. Lawyers for the Public Defenders Corporation added that the office had started hiring an outside lawyer to help reduce the workload on staff.

Speaking at a Metro Council budget hearing in May, Smith said: ‘Contrary to what has been said and what is being said, I am not opposed to unions. However, I have legal, ethical, and fiduciary responsibilities to our indigent clients that are paramount to any opinions or personal preferences I may have.

High workloads, high turnover

The heavy workloads described by Zangari are also experienced by other public defenders in Louisville.

Public defender and union member Blake Gerstner said that in his first year with the public defender’s office, he handled 783 cases ranging “everything from a traffic ticket to a murder.” Speaking to LEO in September, he said he had 266 active cases. Each morning, he says, he handles between five and 12 cases, leaving little time to review them.

“I don’t think there’s a lawyer in my office who thinks he’s fully upholding his ethical and constitutional obligations to each of these indigent clients,” he said. “I have raised these concerns directly with my supervisors: I do not feel able to represent 266 [cases] both in a completely competent way.

Catherine Vining echoed Gerstner’s sentiments, saying the heavy workload was negatively impacting their representation of indigent clients who needed their services.

“At the end of the day, all we’re looking for is the ability to better represent our customers,” she said. “There are days when I can feel like I’m not doing anything good for my clients, that I’m just a cog in the wheel because I have 15 other cases and ‘this deal looks pretty good, so I think you should take it and you don’t want to come back to court, “so I’m going to go ahead and do this.”

Vining said she had seen her co-workers’ “bodies decay from the stress” of work and that of the 14 public defenders who joined the office as part of her incoming class three years ago, there were no only two remained.

“We don’t do this job because we want to be big name lawyers who can deliver the final big speech that will change everyone’s heart,” she said. “My job is to watch a child who has been in foster care since the age of four and who has gone through all of this trauma and come before a judge and humanize him in a way that no one else in this system will be.

Because of these working conditions, Vining and Gerstner said, public defenders often don’t last long in Louisville.

In an email, Chief Public Defender Smith said high caseloads were a “chronic problem for public defender offices across the country” and that the Louisville Public Defender’s Office has taken such action. as improved salaries to reduce the workload and help recruit and retain lawyers.

Starting salaries in the public defender’s office have risen from $45,000 to over $52,000 in the current fiscal year. This figure increases slightly after lawyers complete a nine-month probationary period. However, lawyers have to work 60 hours a week, said Basil, the IBEW lawyer representing the Public Defenders Union.

Despite the recent salary increase, the office remains understaffed by around 20 lawyers according to statistics provided by Basil.

Funding for the Louisville Public Defender’s Office is split between the city and the state Department of Public Defense.

Zangari, the public defender who left for Philadelphia earlier this year, said the 90 cases she currently has are some of the best for lawyers there. While she felt inexperienced public defenders in Louisville were handed high-profile crimes with little guidance, in Philadelphia, she said, attorneys are more thoroughly acquainted with things with training and commentary.

“You get trained to handle lower level offenses before you get thrown into really serious offenses, before the stakes are extremely high,” she said. “You actually get training, feedback, and supervision to teach you how to handle these cases, which I never had in Louisville.”

Responding to LEO Weekly, Smith, Louisville’s chief public defender, said claims that new public defenders were being given high profile felony cases with little guidance were “patently untrue”, pointing out that attorneys from his office have a supervising attorney for their first jury trial.

“I don’t know who made this statement or gave you this misinformation, but it has no merit and is patently nonsense,” he added.

Basil – who says lack of preparedness for major crimes is one of the main problems in the negotiations – said that while low-paid public defenders could be expected to leave for private practice jobs better paid, the Louisville office hunts people determined to be public defenders in a poor work environment.

“If you’re going to get a $150,000 a year job, the office can’t compete with that. We recognize that,” he said. “But there’s a difference between being removed because you have another opportunity and being kicked out because it’s an unpleasant place to work.”

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story quoted public defender Blake Gerstner as saying he had 266 active clients. After publication, he contacted LEO to say that was in error and he meant he had 266 active cases.]

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