Public Defender’s Client Files Harassment Suit

     CHICAGO (CN) – An Illinois public defender sexually harassed his female clients for up to 10 years and retired before being disbarred for misconduct, a former client claims in Federal Court.
     Melissa Nihiser sued Coles County, Illinois, Coles County Public Defender Lonnie Lutz, and Coles County State’s Attorney C. Stephen Ferguson in Federal Court on Thursday.
     Nihiser says Lutz sexually harassed, assaulted and battered her while she was his client from 2012 to 2013.
     Lutz allegedly made sexual overtures toward her despite the fact that Coles County knew of past incidents of abuse, and would not allow him to meet with female clients without another staff member in the room.
     “Every time Lutz appeared in court with plaintiff, he told her they would have to meet on a Saturday, and he also touched her thigh and moved close to her while talking to her,” according to the complaint.
     She also says he tried to kiss her and rubbed her body during a meeting when the staff person left the office.
     Lutz’s recorded history of sexual harassment began in 2003, Nihiser claims, when he was found to have sexually harassed a prospective client. An Illinois attorney discipline commission found that Lutz committed ethical misconduct by engaging in sexual relations with a client.
     One year later, the Illinois Supreme Court sanctioned Lutz for illegally charging male client money while acting as his public defender, the complaint claims.
     Between 2010 and 2012, three more of Lutz’s female clients reported that he sexually harassed them.
     Lutz retired in June 2013, and was disbarred in January 2014 for sexual misconduct toward these three women.
     But in the meantime, he was assigned to represent Nihiser, who says her case suffered because she tried to avoid Lutz as much as possible. And despite Lutz’s known history of sexually harassing clients, the state did not take action to ensure he gave his female clients proper legal representation, according to the complaint.
     “Coles County’s deliberate indifference to the sexual harassment and sexual assault and sexual battery of female public-defender clients, including Nihiser, was neither a traditional public-defender function nor a traditional state’s attorney function, but rather was a Coles County policy constituting official sanction of unlawful and discriminatory policy and practice that directly caused a violation of plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment rights,” Nihiser says in her complaint.
     She seeks damages for violation of her 14th Amendment rights, willful and wanton violation of duties an attorney owes a client, emotional distress, assault and battery.
     She is represented by Ellyn Bullock in Champaign, Illinois.
     No one at the Coles County State’s Attorney Office was immediately available for comment.

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