A Lafayette attorney who says she was fired from the 15th Judicial District Indigent Defender's Office after complaining about unequal pay and gender discrimination — including being told to dress like a nun when meeting clients in jail — filed a lawsuit Wednesday against her former employer.

Jami Pellerin's attorney, Jill Craft, filed the lawsuit against the state of Louisiana through the state Indigent Defender Board; the 15th Judicial District Court Indigent Defender's Office; and G. Paul Marx, individually and in his capacity as chief district defender for the 15th JDC Indigent Defender's Office.

Marx described the lawsuit's allegations of sexual harassment as “sick lies.” He said Pellerin was prone to “tight, revealing, low-neckline” clothing. But Marx insisted that he imposed no special dress code for Pellerin, “other than our normal policy, which says you’re representing the office and you can’t do whatever you want.”

He said he fired Pellerin a year ago for ditching scheduled training to attend a friend’s wedding and working “out of her lane” to help inmates.

In the lawsuit, Pellerin alleges she was paid less than male co-workers with less experience, some of whom had not yet passed the Louisiana bar exam. On March 1, 2017, Pellerin — already a licensed Louisiana attorney — was hired as a staff attorney in the juvenile division for $51,000 a year. Her male predecessor was paid $56,000, she alleges. The pay disparities continued when she was transferred to a felony position, replacing a male attorney who had been licensed only about two months and was paid $58,000 a year when he became licensed, the lawsuit states.

Marx, Pellerin alleges, asked when she was hired how old she was and if she was married, warning her that the office can't afford to pay maternity leave. After returning from her wedding in 2018, Pellerin alleges Marx began asking her at inappropriate times like during meetings and passing in the hallway if she was pregnant yet.

In the lawsuit, Pellerin said during a November 2018 meeting with Marx about a pay raise he asked about her sex life. She alleges he often made sexual comments during private meetings. 

Pellerin said she reported several such incidents to her supervisor, including comments Marx allegedly made about another female attorney in the office.

Marx denied ever “sexualizing” Pellerin, saying he had “no interest in her other than as an attorney.” He said questions about her having children came up in the context of her dissatisfaction with pay, and that it was “ridiculous” to suggest her job was endangered by it.

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In September 2019, Pellerin said she was summoned to a meeting with Marx, female HR Director Chris St. Julien and staff attorney Janet Brown. Pellerin said she was told inmates she represented were getting sexually aroused by her appearance and she had to follow a special dress code, dressing "less attractive," like a nun.

Marx said his office was trying to address complaints about Pellerin, which he said came from within his office and from two sheriff’s officials who cited problems with aroused inmates.

“The problem was in keeping inmates compliant,” he said.

The final straw, Pellerin alleges, happened in February 2020. Three male attorneys, she said, spent three days during work hours unofficially assisting a criminal defense attorney with case law, strategy and other matters. Pellerin said in the lawsuit she joined them for the conclusion of the trial and offered a suggestion on a lesser possible verdict the defense attorney had not thought of and which the jury eventually convicted the defendant on.

The criminal defense attorney and co-workers, Pellerin said, sent emails praising her for the suggestion. But Marx chastised her in an email for assisting the other attorney, saying she wasn't a team player and was grandstanding, the lawsuit alleges. Pellerin said Marx also said she misused IDO resources by helping an attorney outside the office while on IDO time, but he never criticized the three male attorneys.

She was fired in March 2020, the lawsuit states, allegedly for filing a motion for bond reduction for high-risk inmate clients due to COVID-19, which Marx allegedly called an overstep; for giving advice to the defense attorney; and for complaining of unequal treatment.

Pellerin filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Louisiana Commission on Human Rights, but the parties were unable to resolve the dispute, the lawsuit states.

On Feb. 21, the EEOC asked the Justice Department to issue a Notice of Right to Sue.

Email Claire Taylor at ctaylor@theadvocate.com.