December 2, 2011
Just days before the convicted murderer he defended was sentenced to life in prison, Deputy Public Defender John Klopfenstein filed a complaint against Monterey County and the Public Defender’s office for discrimination and ruining his professional reputation. He alleges superiors removed him from his job duties as an act of retaliation for being an alcoholic, which is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Klopfenstein had been defending Ramon Rios, who today was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. Rios is convicted of shooting and killing his wife, her cousin, and his 12-year-old son then fleeing to Mexico, where he hid under an assumed name until a relative turned him in and he was extradited last year.
Over July 4th weekend, while on a short break from the trial, Klopfenstein was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving—he had "suffered a relapse of his disability during non-working hours," according to the complaint. County Public Defender James Egar then initiated a review of Klopfenstein’s job performance and tried to get him removed from the Rios case on grounds that he was unfit to defend a client, but Judge Pamela Butler ruled Klopfenstein could finish the trial.
Still, about three weeks after the arrest, Klopfenstein was placed on paid administrative leave, which according to county code should last no more than 20 days. According to the claim, he’s still on paid leave more than four months later. He pleaded no contest in the DUI case, and was sentenced yesterday to five days in jail (which can be fulfilled through a work release program) and a $1,800 fine.
In the claim filed Nov. 29, he alleges Monterey County and Egar discriminated against him on the basis that alcoholism is a disability, and violated his right to privacy in disclosing confidential medical information regarding alcohol use.
“There is no evidence that alcohol use ever effected his work,” says Klopfenstein’s attorney, Michelle Welsh. She says of many disability cases she’s worked on, the disciplinary actions taken against her client are the most egregious. Egar moved repeatedly to have the Rios case reheard with a new defense attorney, but Butler denied all of his motions that implicated Klopfenstein's work for being subpar.
“The appropriate response [to alcoholism] would be accommodation and assistance, not suspensions and disciplinary actions and threats,” Welsh says. Egar did not return calls for comment on Friday.
Klopfenstien is seeking unspecified damages, but Welsh says he’s interested mostly in getting back to work. The public defender’s office has also caused “severe emotional distress, pain and loss of reputation in the community,” according to the complaint. If the county doesn’t put him back to work, Welsh says he’s considering filing a lawsuit.
He also hasn’t had a single drink since the 4th of July weekend, Welsh adds. “I don’t know how many others in the entire court system could say that.”
The County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss the claim in closed session Dec. 13.