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193 Cases Was Enough, Public Defender Says

CALDWELL, Idaho (CN) - A severely underfunded public defender's office fired its juvenile case manager for refusing to take more cases than the 193 she already had, a "crushing" load that would have violated her ethical responsibilities, she claims in court.

Lisa Rae Fullmer, a first-year attorney, began working for the Canyon County Public Defender's Office in October 2014. She reported to chief public defender and department administrator Tera Harden, who reported directly to the Canyon County Board of County Commissioners, which determines the annual budget for the Public Defender's Office.

In her lawsuit in Canyon County Court, Fullmer claims Harden told her that "a first-year attorney should not be handling the juvenile docket," but that she was hired to do just that.

Fullmer sued the county, its Board of Commissioners and its Public Defender's Office on Oct. 16. She claims they wrongfully fired her for refusing to violate her ethical obligations as an attorney.

Neither Harden nor the individual county commissioners are named as defendants. The only defendants are the official bodies, and Does 1-10.

Fullmer's attorney Kristen Thompson told Courthouse News that handling the hundreds of open cases at the Public Defender's Office is time-consuming, particularly for juvenile cases.

"It takes even more time to handle these cases," she said. "You can make a real difference in someone else's life and that's why you have to have the resources to take care of these children, but this is also a constitutional mandate. There is no choice."

Many children going through the juvenile system have suffered numerous traumas and need emotional support.

"You are counseling these children and their parents and trying to find another solution, other than just throwing them into the system," Thompson said.

The lawsuit says that juvenile clients "are often disadvantaged, have suffered abuse, lack role models that can demonstrate normal societal behavior, and face other unique hurdles. "The juvenile docket requires more time and energy than typical adult misdemeanor clients' caseloads."

Fullmer says that by July 7, 2015 she was handling 193 "open matters."

Thompson told Courthouse News that the County Commission refused the Public Defender's Office request for nine more attorneys plus support staff, at a cost of $1.4 million per year, and that those numbers do not come from Fullmer, but from Harden's request to the commission.

A county spokeswoman said Commissioners Steve Rule, Tom Dale and Craig Hanson would not comment on open litigation.

Fullmer's lawsuit claims that the underfunding, short staffing and crushing workload violate her clients' right to due process, under the Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments.

She claims that the average Canyon County public defender handles about 130 open matters at a time, and that Canyon County attorneys handling felony cases "are on track to handle a total of 250 cases each for 2015."

That is "100 cases more than the American Bar Association (ABA) recommends as the maximum number of felony cases per year," the complaint states.

"Canyon County is overburdening these public defenders to the point where they are drowning," Thompson said. "You had a first-year attorney who was inexperienced in handling this crushing case load."

Fullmer says she had no choice but to ask for help, but that Harden refused to give her guidance and responded "negatively" to her requests.

Harden sent her a pre-termination notice on July 7 after Fullmer refused to help another attorney while Canyon County Magistrate Judge Dayo Onanubosi, who presides over the juvenile docket, was on vacation.

"Plaintiff made clear that the last time Harden directed [her] to assist another attorney while Judge Onanubosi was on vacation, she was not left with enough time to prepare for [his] return and the increased burden to catch up on the cases," the complaint states. "Plaintiff objected to Harden's directive that would have forced plaintiff to violate her ethical obligation. [She] likewise made clear that Harden's directive would not allow plaintiff to provide her clients adequate assistance of counsel thereby depriving her clients of their constitutional right to counsel."

Fullmer says Harden fired her on July 17, about nine months after she was hired.

She claims the wrongful firing violated Idaho's whistleblower law, which protects employees from "any adverse" action if they have "objected to or refused to carry out a directive that the employee reasonably believes violates a law or a rule or regulation."

Courthouse News was unable to reach Harden at the Canyon County Public Defender's Office.

Canyon County public information officer Joe Decker said he could not comment on pending litigation. He confirmed that the Board of Commissioners has "executive authority for the entire county's budget," including the Public Defender's Office.

The Canyon County Public Defender's Office has a 2015 operating budget of about $3.3 million. The adopted budget for fiscal year 2016 is a little over $3.4 million.

"By law, the county clerk provides the Board of Commissioners with a suggested budget and they can tinker with it," Decker said. "Our commissioners tend to tinker with that budget. They have individual meetings with department heads and ask them questions about their requested budget."

Fullmer seeks reinstatement with lost wages and benefits, damages and costs, statutory damages for each violation of Idaho code, and an injunction against whistle-blower violations and ordering the county to properly fund the Public Defender's Office.

Thompson's office is in Meridian.

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