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Former employee sues Public Defender board

Lafayette Parish Courthouse
Posted at 12:00 PM, Apr 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 16:49:53-04

A former employee of the Lafayette Public Defender's office has filed suit, claiming she was harassed and then fired by her boss there.

According to the suit, Jami Pellerin was hired in 2017 to be a public defender, and was fired in March 2020. She claims that the 15th Judicial District Indigent Defender Office never had an "effective" anti-discrimination or harassment policy.

The suit, filed by Baton Rouge attorney Jill Craft on March 30, states that Pellerin filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that accepts and investigates complaints of harassment and discrimination. After the EEOC investigation, Pellerin says she given a "right to sue" status.

Pellerin's lawyer she replaced was paid $56,000 but she was paid only $51,000, the suit claims. She was transferred to another position, defending people accused of felonies, and replaced another male attorney who had been an attorney for only two months - but was being paid $58,000, the suit claims.

That man had been hired, being paid $56,000 annually, before he passed the bar. He was paid $56,000 until he passed the bar, and then he was paid $58,000, the suit claims.

In October 2019, the board hired a man who had not yet passed the bar; as soon as he passed the bar he was to begin work and be paid $56,000, the suit claims.

We reached out to the local office and her boss, Paul Marx, for a response to the lawsuit and he sent us this statement:

"The matter in the Pellerin Suit is now in the legal process. I am prepared to respond there to the petition, and I note that our office has a protocol for filing complaints and a process for addressing them. Regrettably all of the allegations related to harassment and discrimination were never presented before the filing of this suit. My previous statements to the media are sufficient to advised that the petition will be aggressively challenged in a court of law. That is the appropriate place and lawful place to determine the facts. there will be judgment in this case by a jury. Post trial will provide plenty of time to comment."

The suit also claims that Marx asked her age during her interview, and also asked if she was married. His response, the suit alleges was "we don't offer maternity here, for you young girls this is more of a pit stop than a career." When she got married in 2018, Marx allegedly approached her after she returned to work and asked if she was pregnant yet. She claims that Marx the continued to discuss her sex life and potential pregnancy constantly, with her co-workers and with her during "virtually every time (Pellerin) had a meeting" with him, even asking her if she was pregnant when he passed her in the halls of the office.

Another incident alleged in the suit happened when Pellerin was working with an expert witness. The expert stopped Marx, who was walking by, to comment on how attractive Pellerin is. Then he and Marx began to discuss her looks and how hard it was for Marx to concentrate on his work when he was surrounded by such good-looking females, the suit claims. The suit also alleges that Marx commented that he only hires good-looking females to work at his office. Later, after the expert left, Marx asked Pellerin if he had just committed a "Me Too" and she said yes. He said the expert is just an old man who likes pretty girls and that Pellerin should take their discussion as a compliment. He also said, the suit alleges, that it was better to keep the expert "happy."

Pellerin also alleges that, every time she went to Marx to ask for a raise, he started a sexual conversation. The suit alleges he would talk about her sex life with her fiance, and talk about his own sexual prowess. She details remarks Marx allegedly made about a female employee in the office, saying she was popular in the courthouse and he'd like to have sex with her because she must be "wild in bed."

She describes a meeting about inmates who might be masturbating in jail, and was accused of causing them to do so because of her looks. She was told to stop wearing dresses to work, and when she reminded Marx that he had complimented her dress, he said it was because he is "a dirty old man." She claims she asked how she was violating the office dress code, at which time it was admitted that she was not - but that she had her own special dress code now. The lawsuit claims Marx told her that "men can't control themselves" and as their attorney she must protect them from their instincts by being less attractive. The suit claims Marx specifically told her that if she looked good after getting dressed she needed to change before coming to work.

The suit specifically accuses the office's female Human Resources director of complaining to Pellerin about Pellerin's shoes; of accusing her of only wearing heels to "get attention" and complaining about Pellerin's clothes, which the HR director felt were "expensive." And, it accuses Marx of yelling at her about the "feminist victim card" when she complained about the dress code that only applied to her; during that same conversation he suggested she wear ill-fitting clothing and no make-up because she had a "responsibility to curtail a man's response" to her. The suit claims Marx also called her "hysterical," "difficult," and "petty."

The suit details several more similar conversations and situations, and claims that when she spoke up about them Marx told her "sue me, I'd like to see you try." It claims Marx allowed the male attorneys to watch other trials and assist other attorneys, but once when she assisted - with a good result for the defendant - Marx chastised her for her "bad choice" and accused her of not being a "team player."

The office fired her in March 2020, the suit claims, for that very incident, as well as for complaining that a male attorney was being paid more than she was - even before he passed the bar.

We reached out to the Public Defender's office and to Marx, but have not received a response yet.