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COUNTY COUNSEL'S OFFICE BEING SUED FOR DISCRIMINATION.

Byline: Douglas Haberman Daily News Staff Writer

Los Angeles County's legal office has been cheating its contract workers and discriminating against a group of female attorneys since 1989, claim two class-action lawsuits filed Monday in Superior Court.

One suit claims the County Counsel's Office since 1989 has been unlawfully running a nonprofit agency, Auxiliary Legal Services, as a shell company, providing the office with lower-paid lawyers and legal staff who do exactly the same work as county counsel employees.

``I believe I'm a county employee, I'm just paid differently,'' said plaintiff Robert Shiell, a supervising attorney who has been representing the Department of Children and Family Services since 1987, first as an independent contractor and since 1989 as an ALS employee.

ALS employees say they get lower salaries and fewer benefits, in violation of federal and state equal protection laws as well as the state labor code and other laws.

``It is a sham by which the county has figured out how to pay substandard wages,'' said attorney Steven Kaplan of Los Angeles at a news conference outside the county Hall of Administration downtown.

``This is the most egregious shell I've ever seen,'' said another plaintiff attorney, Seattle lawyer David Stobaugh, whose firm represented contract employees in a similar landmark case against Microsoft.

An independent audit for the Board of Supervisors, issued in November, highlighted inequities cited in the suits.

``I think the lawsuits raise some very important issues that have been raised before and that the county counsel should attempt to address as soon as possible,'' Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Monday.

The November audit found that an attorney with five years of experience would enter the County Counsel's Office with a salary level of approximately $71,000. The corresponding ALS salary would be between $55,000 and $59,000.

County Counsel Bill Pellman, who had not seen the lawsuits Monday, said he doesn't think the plaintiffs have a case.

He said ALS is just one contract law firm of many the county uses, though he conceded it's unique because ALS employees work side-by-side with County Counsel employees.

But the pay difference is a function of market forces, Pellman said.

The County Counsel's Office and ALS combined had 413 employees last June, of which 190 were ALS attorneys, paralegals, secretaries and other support staffers.

The first suit against the county was filed on behalf of 200 to 500 employees, past and present, and seeks back pay and designation of ALS employees as county counsel employees with appropriate salaries and benefits. It also seeks unspecified punitive damages.

The second suit, on behalf of up to 200 female ALS attorneys past and present, alleges violation of the federal Equal Pay Act as well as sex discrimination in violation of state law and the county's own code.

Since ALS was created in 1989, women have made up about 70 percent of its attorneys, while women account for only 30 percent of county counsel attorneys.

That disparity and the fact that ALS attorneys make far less in salary and benefits than recognized county counsel attorneys amounts to discrimination against the female attorneys, the suit alleges.

Pellman said most attorneys in the office were hired at a time when men far outnumbered women among lawyers. At ALS, however, hires have come at a time when far more women are coming out of law schools.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 13, 1999
Words:559
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