Federal prosecutor reaches settlement over discrimination in US attorney’s office

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A longtime federal prosecutor has reached a settlement in his lawsuit alleging retaliation for calling out racially discriminatory actions and language at the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Pell, who is white and based in Orange County, California, alleged in his July 2021 complaint that he was subjected to unwarranted discipline and poor performance reviews after speaking up about discrimination by managers in his office against a Hispanic female prosecutor and other people of color. He also asserted that then-U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna of the Central District of California did nothing to stop the behavior, which happened from 2018 to 2020.

“This settlement was a victory not only for Mr. Pell but also for the minority employees who work at the U.S. attorney’s office who have received the message that this kind of racism will not be tolerated in their workplace,” said Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and the president and co-founder of West Coast Employment Lawyers, which represents plaintiffs in personal injury and civil litigation, in a news release.

As part of the settlement, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to change Pell’s annual rating back to “outstanding,” delete false statements in his reviews, and remove a letter of reprimand for alleged unprofessional conduct from his personnel file, according to the news release. He was awarded a week of additional time off, and while the settlement was nonmonetary, his legal costs were covered.

Hanna, who provided a copy of the settlement agreement to the ABA Journal on Tuesday, contends that prior to the lawsuit, the executive office for U.S. attorneys’ Complaint Adjudication Office issued Pell a final decision in April 2021 finding no discrimination or retaliation. The office issued another final decision in May 2021 that dismissed his administrative complaint of discrimination.

“This was a manufactured claim by someone upset with his annual performance review,” Hanna also said in an email Tuesday. “As clearly stated in the settlement agreement, main Justice investigated the allegations and found no discrimination or retaliation. The final outcome, a nuisance value settlement, speaks for itself.”

Hanna is now a partner in the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

According to Pell’s complaint, a supervisor described a Hispanic female prosecutor’s work as “shoddy” and her written product as “below GC” quality, a reference to general crimes in which newly hired prosecutors are assigned. The supervisor insinuated that she was lazy by asserting that she wasn’t properly prepared to charge cases.

Pell said he also reported that one attorney with management responsibilities said a Black employee was wearing his “pimp daddy outfit,” while another allegedly called the outgoing criminal chief a “Black mamba.”

Pell noted in his complaint that the retaliation and discrimination against him worsened after he filed a formal complaint against officials in the U.S. attorney’s office and participated in a racial justice and equity working group with other federal prosecutors. He also said his managers knew that he was in a relationship with a Hispanic woman and had a son with her.

Pell had worked as a federal prosecutor for more than 15 years by the time that he filed his lawsuit. According to the news release, he received the California Lawyer Attorney of the Year award in criminal practice in 2015.

The settlement was reached April 1 and was recently implemented.

Updated Aug. 17 at 9:25 a.m. to include Nicola Hanna’s comments.

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