Defender’s Office accused of mocking LGBT client, staffer
STOCKTON — An attorney who recently quit her job with San Joaquin County’s Office of the Public Defender says she may sue her former boss and five former co-workers over workplace harassment and inappropriate comments about a female transgender client.
April Van Dyke, 35, says she was subjected to lewd jokes and remarks from male co-workers after she disclosed to them that she is bisexual and was dating a woman. She also said coworkers, female and male, referred to the transgender client as “shim” and “he/she,” respectively.
“It’s insane,” Van Dyke, now working in Humboldt County’s Office of the Public Defender, said during a recent interview. “I just never thought that at this organization that is supposed to be protecting people (that they) would talk about our clients that way. To make fun of their gender identity is just despicable.”
Van Dyke said when she complained to the county’s human-resources office and filed a worker’s compensation stress claim, Public Defender Miriam Lyell took away her flexible schedule without explanation.
The county’s human-resources office hired an outside attorney to investigate Van Dyke’s allegations. The attorney’s report “sustained in part” two of Van Dyke’s allegations — that she was shunned in the office and that “shim” was used in the office in reference to the transgender client. But HR said it was unable to determine specifically who committed the offenses.
Lyell issued a written statement when asked about Van Dyke’s allegations.
“I will not provide specifics to any actions that I took in response to the confidential investigation findings other than all of her claims were thoroughly investigated by an objective and independent third-party law firm,” Lyell wrote.
“All staff receive periodical mandated training on all the county policies, civil services rules and (equalemployment) policies, as well as other trainings, consistent with the county requirements.”
Terry Leoni, a lawyer who represents the five attorneys from the public Defender’s Office named in Van Dyke’s complaint to human resources, also issued a statement.
“My clients strongly deny any discriminatory treatment of Ms. Van Dyke,” Leoni wrote. “An independent law firm investigated Ms. Van Dyke’s claims. The investigation was objective, meticulous and thorough, and the allegations of discriminatory treatment were not substantiated.
“My clients are Public Defenders who’ve dedicated their career to loyally, ethically and compassionately representing some of the most diverse and needy populations. They look forward to continuing to focus on serving their clients.”
Two attorneys, one a former member of the Public Defender’s Office, and another in private practice, spoke in support of Van Dyke.
“These clients are at a low point in their lives and are desperate and have been let down by so many people and society,” said the former public defender, who asked not to be identified because of her ongoing work in the legal profession.
“How do you put faith in someone who is supposed to be advocating for you when they are calling you names behind closed doors?”
Van Dyke said hearing fellow attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office allegedly mock one of the department’s clients was disillusioning.
“The reason I love being a public defender is the clients,” Van Dyke said. “I feel oftentimes that I’m the only one who is there standing in their corner . ... I feel like this is what I’ve been meant to do.