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A gender discrimination suit filed against Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff on Wednesday hints at unrest among county prosecutors that may extend beyond plaintiff Angela Backers. In the suit filed in Alameda County Superior Court, Backers, who heads the office’s homicide division, claims she and other women have been unfairly passed over for promotion. She also alleges that, despite her 22 years of experience and a strong trial record, she’s been denied high-profile case assignments. In one incident that sparked the suit, the complaint says Backers sent an e-mail to all attorneys in the DA’s office last July, in which she compared wage proposals for county prosecutors to wage rates for the deputy DAs in other Bay Area counties. “Within minutes of reading [Backers'] e-mail, Orloff barged into her office, without knocking, and began shouting at her and berating her for having sent the e-mail to her colleagues,” the complaint states. “Among other things, Orloff angrily demanded that she not ‘stick [her] nose where it doesn’t belong.’” This wouldn’t be the first time Orloff has been accused of trying to stifle collective bargaining among staff attorneys. Last summer Orloff boosted pay for the deputy DAs “in an effort to discourage unionization in the DA’s office,” said Bob Britton, an organizer with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, which represents the county’s public defenders. Orloff was prepared to give deputy DAs a 3 percent pay hike but changed his mind after learning that the union had negotiated an increase of more than 7 percent for public defenders, Britton said. Prosecutors wound up with a pay raise that was in line with what the defenders received, the union organizer said. “Obviously if the county can get the district attorneys more money than we can get in a bargaining situation, then we’re not going to succeed during an organizing drive,” Britton said. Chief Assistant DA Nancy O’Malley confirmed the pay raise given to deputy prosecutors, but she said the raise was due to a policy of giving equal pay to all deputy attorneys in the county, including the county counsel’s office. “That’s how it’s worked forever and there’s nothing nefarious about that,” O’Malley said. As for Orloff’s response to the e-mail from Backers, O’Malley confirmed that the conversation took place but disputed the claim that Orloff raised his voice. “He’s not a screamer,” O’Malley said. “I’ve never heard him scream at anyone.” COULD’VE BEEN MORE Beyond the labor issues, Backers’ attorney, Kathryn Dickson of plaintiff employment firm Dickson Ross in Oakland, claims her discrimination case could have been filed as a class action. A number of women in the office � not just Backers � have shared the same gender discrimination concerns, said Dickson, though she said she would not specify the number of women for fear they might be sniffed out. A number of women are prepared to back up Backers’ claims if they have to, she said.
‘The allegations that are made in the complaint, I believe, will be disproved or disputed through fact. It’s disappointing. … Tom and I have been very proud of the statistical makeup of this office and we continue to outreach to make sure that we have an office that reflects our community.’

NANCY O’MALLEY Alameda chief assistant DA

But class actions tend to take longer to resolve, Dickson said. “It’s a pattern and practice case,” Dickson said. “It’s not just Angela. It’s women in general.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth, according to O’Malley � a woman who has served as the office’s No. 2 manager for eight years. She pointed to two other women who serve as branch heads and one interim head of one juvenile branch as examples of women who hold high positions in the DA’s office. However, none of those women hold the assistant DA II level to which Backers believes she has been denied promotion. “The allegations that are made in the complaint, I believe, will be disproved or disputed through fact,” O’Malley said. “It’s disappointing. … Tom and I have been very proud of the statistical makeup of this office and we continue to outreach to make sure that we have an office that reflects our community.” Prosecutor Sandy Quist was an assistant DA II, but she retired last year, O’Malley said. Backers claims Orloff refused to assign her cases involving the murder of police officers � the highest-profile cases in the office � despite her “better trial track record” in death penalty cases than the male prosecutors’. Orloff will be prosecuting the Irving Ramirez cop-killing case scheduled to begin trial later this year. Dickson would not comment on whether Backers had wanted to take that case. DEATH DEFYING In another incident cited in the lawsuit, Orloff allegedly ignored Backers’ recommendation in one case not to seek the death penalty, despite taking similar recommendations from her “less qualified male colleagues.” The lawsuit alleges Orloff knew the case was not strong enough to obtain a death penalty at trial, but wanted to “blemish her excellent trial record.” The lawsuit says Orloff falsely claimed the office “does not deal death cases.” O’Malley says there’s no blanket policy like that, adding that the decision-making procedure in potential death penalty cases is “a very, very responsible process.” A committee, including the preliminary hearing deputy DA, convenes and discusses whether they will charge special circumstances and if so, whether the penalty will be death or life without parole, O’Malley said. Sometimes, the committee will consider a memo from the defense attorneys. “She’s only one of the people that actually attends the meeting,” O’Malley said. “We have been as responsible and thoughtful and inclusive as we can possibly be in making that type of decision.”

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