The daughter of Supervisor Deidre Kelsey has filed a claim against Merced County seeking $200,000 and a formal apology for damage to her reputation after county officials made public an internal investigation of the Public Defender’s Office.
Eloise Kelsey Souders claims that making the report public was negligent and done with “reckless disregard” for her privacy. Souders, a criminal defense attorney who works in private practice in Merced, was an “extra help” deputy public defender at the Merced County Public Defender’s Office when the internal investigation was completed.
The 134-page report in question was released to the Merced Sun-Star after the newspaper submitted a Public Records Act request in January. It contained the findings of Susan Hatmaker, a Fresno-based attorney hired by Merced County to investigate claims of favoritism, potential retaliation and other concerns in the Public Defender’s Office. Souders voluntarily resigned on Jan. 3.
Later that month, the report was released to the public by County Executive Officer Jim Brown and County Counsel James Fincher.
“These county officers acted knowing the content of the report was highly embarrassing and contained private personnel matters which were protected by California law and Merced County policy,” according to Souders’ claim. “They acted with full knowledge that such a publication would inevitably cause damage to the claimant’s professional and personal life, and livelihood.”
Although county attorneys redacted the names of employees in the report before releasing it, the claim says Souders was “readily identifiable from other easily obtainable facts,” such as mentioning she’s the “daughter of” a county supervisor. That language that was not removed from the report.
Merced County Chief Civil Litigator Roger Matzkind confirmed receiving Souders’ claim on Monday, but said the county acted within the law when it released the report. The newspaper had a right to see the report, Matzkind said, and the county has a responsibility to turn over information when it’s appropriate to provide it.
“The newspaper has a right to know,” Matzkind said. “The fact is it was required to be released and it will be released. Otherwise (the Merced Sun-Star) would have probably sued us.”
Merced County has 45 days to act on Souders’ claim. Matzkind would not comment on whether a recommendation has been made, citing attorney-client privilege. If Souders’ claim is rejected, she has the option to file a lawsuit within six months.
Adam Stewart, Souders’ Modesto-based attorney, could not be reached for comment Monday. Kelsey declined comment about her daughter's claim.
The investigation by Hatmaker began after county officials said they received complaints about Eric Dumars, then the county’s public defender. According to Souders’ claim, filed on July 16, Chief Deputy Public Defender Vincent Andrade filed a “defamatory” complaint against Dumars in October 2013.
Andrade’s complaint described “a number of inflammatory rumors which he either participated in the origination of or encouraged the repeating of for selfish and personal gain,” according to Souders’ claim. Christopher Loethen and Paul Lyon, both deputy public defenders, as well as extra help Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Jamieson, also made “defamatory” statements, the claim states.
The statements alleged Souders received promotions and an offer of a permanent position based on a “perceived” sexual relationship between her and Dumars. According to Souders’ complaint, Loethen contradicted himself when he told her “no one could ever question” her hard work and that she deserved to be hired permanently.
According to Souders’ claim, some of the statements rise to the level of defamation and slander, including comments that Dumars and Souders secretly met at the office to engage in sexual activity and that Souders was referred to as “Mrs. Public Defender.”
The release of the investigative report, which included the “untruthful statements,” has caused significant damage to Souders’ personal reputation, the claim says, and has adversely affected her business and personal relationships. Souders is asking for $200,000 and a formal apology by the county to be printed in the Sun-Star to “ameliorate further damage” to her reputation.
Matzkind said Souders could have filed legal action to stop the Hatmaker report from being released, but she didn’t.
“I don’t see anything in there that would support a valid lawsuit,” Matzkind said of Souders’ claim. “You made a legitimate PRA (Public Records Act) request and after a redaction of names we responded to the PRA request consistent with the law.”
If the Board of Supervisors chooses to act on Souders’ claim, it will appear on a future board agenda. If the board doesn’t act within 45 days, the claim is automatically rejected.