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Louisville public defender’s office violated labor law, federal agency says

Exterior view of concrete and glass building
Jacob Munoz
Public defenders in Louisville represent indigent clients, which can include cases at Jefferson County District Court.

A judge with the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees private-sector unions, ruled last week that the Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation broke federal labor law.

Louisville public attorneys voted to unionize early last year, but their efforts have been jeopardized by a merger with the state that will happen next summer. The union alleges the corporation has illegally retaliated against it.

Ruling on three charges filed by the union in early 2022, administrative law judge Melissa M. Olivero wrote that the public defender corporation failed to provide information to the union in a timely manner. Workers had requested details like written employment policies and individual wages in order to prepare for bargaining, but the corporation took months to send some of that.

“[The office] did not complete its provision of documents to the Union until October [2022], over 8 months after the Union requested them,” Olivero wrote.

The corporation also didn’t provide the union details about a decision to subcontract work to an outside attorney to take on some cases from a public defender who supported the union, which the union alleged was retaliation. However, the NLRB later said there was "insufficient evidence" that the office retaliated against the attorney, and that the evidence showed there was a "legitimate business reason" for the change.

Olivero also wrote that the office violated labor law by outsourcing the cases without notifying the union beforehand and giving it the opportunity to bargain over it. According to the ruling, Chief Public Defender Leo Smith, who leads the corporation, said the office made that decision to alleviate low staffing numbers and provide cost savings.

The public defenders’ office also said it had the right to delay providing the union with bargaining information due to ethics concerns, according to the ruling.

The judge also noted unsuccessful attempts to block the union. One public defender who opposed the union filed a petition in late 2021 to the Kentucky Supreme Court to prevent it from forming, and in 2022 the corporation asked both the court and the Kentucky Bar Association to weigh in on whether its attorneys had the right to unionize.

Olivero said that the office’s decision to delay information was unreasonable, in part because the NLRB had previously determined that the corporation’s attorneys could bargain when an earlier union was formed in 2000.

In the ruling, she ordered the corporation to provide any missing information that the union requested “in a timely manner” and be willing to bargain over the subcontracted docket.

In an email, Smith said the corporation intends to challenge the judge’s ruling, which he said didn’t reflect current bargaining efforts. The office has until Dec. 22 to appeal.

“We most definitely plan to file exceptions to the administrative ruling and fully expect to prevail on the merits given the clear weight of the evidence on the record supporting our position,” Smith said.

Ben Basil, an attorney for IBEW Local 369, which represents the attorneys’ union, said the corporation intentionally broke labor laws to avoid recognizing the union.

“They’re spending tax money to do it,” Basil said. “It gets all of its money from Kentucky — the Commonwealth — and Louisville Metro. And what they’re doing with it is using it to break federal law on purpose.”

Basil said the union is still trying to negotiate on issues related to the office’s merger with the state. Union members want changes like retention bonuses to keep attorneys on board, but Basil alleged the corporation has given them to non-unionized attorneys and won’t offer them to others unless the union dissolves.

Smith said that the office made an offer in its most recent bargaining session in response to union demands but did not provide details about what it included.

This story has been updated to include additional information from the NLRB.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.

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