LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s promotion policy unlawfully discriminates against Latino attorneys, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday against Los Angeles County.

MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) filed the lawsuit on behalf of Miguel Rosales, an attorney who has spent nearly 30 years working as a public defender. Despite his experience, Rosales, 60, was consistently passed over for promotions even though his non-Latino counterparts were regularly promoted.

The lawsuit challenges the process for promoting public defenders because it relies on subjective criteria that discriminate against Latinos in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection guarantee and state and federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, ethnicity or age.

“At a time of increasing public distrust of the criminal law apparatus, systemic discrimination against the largest minority group in the country does tremendous damage to community respect for our justice system” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “We understandably expect better of the Public Defender’s office, as the frequent legal representative of so many Latinos drawn into the criminal courts.”

At issue is the department’s process for promoting attorneys, which relies on a standardized test that MALDEF’s attorneys describe as being “riddled with cultural bias.” The department then ranks applicants into “bands” according to their test results, which account for 50% of their total score, and their score on two other criteria. Candidates from the top band move on to an interview.  If an applicant passes the first interview, the candidate is given a second interview. The biased test and ranking system, coupled with the lack of Latinos evaluating applicants, has resulted in a promotion process that disadvantages Latinos, according to MALDEF.

The standardized test for promotion was made mandatory in 2018, despite warnings from senior Latino staff that the test was producing unequal results for Latino applicants compared to white applicants, the complaint says.

Rosales joined the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office in 1995. He has not been promoted since 2007 despite applying several times for higher positions. In October 2021, Rosales applied for a head deputy position—the next step up from his current job—but was cut early in the promotion process. However, during that time eight non-Latino employees were sent through the entire process and promoted. In that same round of promotions, not a single Latino made it past the first step of the process, according to the complaint. LACPD has not promoted a Latino to head deputy since 2018.

Rosales complained to the human resources department about the discrimination but was turned away. The public defender’s office also prohibited Rosales from using performance evaluations to prove his experience in the department’s juvenile division that was important for promotion. When Rosales appealed the decision to the county Civil Service Commission, the public defender’s office sent a representative to oppose him even though it had previously allowed a   non-Latino applicant to use their performance reviews to prove their experience.

“For years, Latino public defenders working for the LA county public defenders’ office have been shut out of management,” Rosales said. “The current L.A. County Public Defender ushered in an era of personality and psychological testing. The results of these tests enabled the public defender’s office to freeze out qualified, experienced, and accomplished Latino public defenders in favor of less qualified, younger, and non-Latino applicants. With the help of MALDEF, we hope to bring an end to these discriminatory practices.”

The Public Defender’s actions violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), attorneys argue.

“The Public Defender’s office has knowingly implemented a promotion process that perpetuates discrimination against Latino applicants,” MALDEF staff attorney Fernando Nuñez said. “The use of biased promotional criteria and retaliation towards Mr. Rosales following his complaints violated several anti-discrimination laws. This lawsuit seeks justice for Mr. Rosales, but it is also a call for an end to systemic discrimination within the Public Defender’s office to ensure equal opportunities for its Latino employees.”

MALDEF is asking for compensatory and punitive damages for Rosales and court costs and attorney’s fees.

Read the complaint HERE.