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San Bernardino County pays $3 million to settle sexual harassment lawsuit against public defender’s office

San Bernardino County has agreed to pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit filed by four former employees of its public defender’s office who said they were sexually harassed and coerced into sexual acts, the plaintiff’s attorney announced Friday.

The lawsuit, filed in November 2021, alleged that female employees “were forced to perform oral sex” and that “top managers accessed porn sites during Public Defender training” and “used a county car to take other public defenders to a strip club.”

The plaintiff’s attorney Bradley Gage characterized the office as having an “Animal House” culture.

The lawsuit also alleged that former county Public Defender Gregory Christopher Gardner, who resigned in 2020, had pursued sexual relationships with multiple employees.

“The victims are not here [in court] today because what they went through was so traumatic,” Gage said at a news conference Friday at his Woodland Hills office. “Some of them indicated to me how important it is that the community see the terrible toll that harassment can take on a victim.”

The county is paying $3 million of the settlement while Gardner is paying $40,000, Gage said.

The plaintiffs will receive between $500,000 to $1 million each.

The county issued a brief statement Friday about the settlement, saying it had “a strict, long-standing, zero-tolerance policy prohibiting harassment, retaliation, and workplace violence.”

“The County maintains that it addressed the matters in question promptly, appropriately, responsibly, and effectively when concerns were brought to the County’s attention,” according to the statement. “The County agreed to settle this case to protect the taxpayers from the high costs of protracted litigation, and to assist the Public Defender’s office in moving forward.”

But Gage noted that some victims were disappointed that the county appears to have never taken any disciplinary action against Gardner.

“The women feel that they have been punished while the harasser has gone about finding a new job, continuing to work as a lawyer, making a nice living, having accolades and a reputation that is pretty much unsullied,” Gage said.

None of the women, one of whom was an attorney, currently work at the public defender’s office.

According to the complaint, Gardner engaged in quid pro quo harassment of women in exchange for job benefits.

In one incident, Gardner was accused of driving a woman to Newport Beach for a meeting that was supposedly regarding work.

The woman asked to be taken home after realizing that “Gardner did not want to discuss work,” according to the complaint.

According to the complaint, Gardner allegedly refused to let the woman leave the vehicle and “slammed [the woman’s arm] into the console of the vehicle causing injury and bleeding.”

The woman filed a report with the Newport Beach Police Department but Gardner has not faced prosecution, Gage said.

“You can never really have a consensual sexual relationship with the boss,” Gage said Friday. “Because whether it’s a male or a female, the boss gets to control the terms and conditions of your employment. There’s always a fear that if you turn them down, you’re now going to have problems with your job.”

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