Harassment Cases Hard To Pursue -- Many Victims Find Going Public Can Be A Test Of Endurance

"Sexual Harassment - The Sequel." That's how one woman describes how it felt when she took action to stop the unwanted, crude advances of a co-worker.

The process of going public with allegations of sexual harassment doesn't win many favorable reviews, either, from administrators who deal with claims or attorneys who represent clients in civil suits. Most victims express strong, often bitter feelings about what they have to do to halt a harasser.

Victims who file claims through government agencies, for instance, inevitably run into bureaucratic backlogs and snafus. Those who choose to sue can count on an average wait of 20 months for a court date.

Women's-rights advocates now worry that the quick dismissal of law Professor Anita Hill's claims against Supreme Court appointee Clarence Thomas - and the spectacle surrounding her allegations - will discourage women even more from reporting sexual harassment.

"You're looking at not only the harassment you've gone through the first time but being harassed a second time through the process," says Marilyn Endriss, a Seattle attorney specializing in discrimination law. "There are no kid gloves here."

Julia Waterman of Seattle said yesterday that she has faced "one obstacle after another" in pressing her allegation that she was sexually harassed at a small health-maintenance organization in Seattle.

Waterman left her job in late 1989. The lawsuit she filed isn't scheduled to be heard until March 1992.

Those who file a claim with a government agency will get help for free. But claims must be filed within six months of the last harassment incident. And the agencies won't even handle claims from people who work at small companies.

The claims that are filed get stacked onto the heap of pending cases, so it might be a year or more before the case is resolved. In the meantime, potential witnesses can move away or co-workers forget what has happened.

"We are a bureaucracy, and the process is not always as fast as you'd want it to be," said Shelly Cohen, a legal counsel for the Seattle Human Rights Department, which has received 21 sexual-harassment claims since January 1990.

Marlene Brown still is angry at what she calls the "silly, arbitrary numbers game" she had to play with the Washington State Human Rights Commission nearly two years ago when she filed a sexual-harassment allegation against her boss. She was told she didn't qualify because the company had only 7 1/2 employees. The state agency will not accept a case involving a company with fewer than eight employees.

Judith Lonnquist, a Seattle attorney who handles civil-rights claims, said she actually advises victims against using the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because of the "revolving door of investigators. You'll never have the same one from start to finish."

The EEOC, which received 112 sexual-harassment claims in Washington state last year, does not award for emotional distress but can grant reinstatement and back pay if it finds for a plaintiff.

Lonnquist also said recent statistics show that in less than 5 percent of the cases, compliance agencies in Washington found in favor of workers alleging harassment. "It's a joke," she said.

For many, filing a civil lawsuit is out of the question because of cost, both financially and mentally.

"I didn't think it would be worth my while because of the emotional cost vs. the gain I would get," said Terri Gerhart of Issaquah, who sought redress against a local surgeon for his offensive behavior. "I was told by medical-employment agencies I could kiss my job good-bye forever if I filed a sexual-harassment suit."

Attorneys, though, say the process gives back to victims power over their lives because of the decisions they have to make. Endriss said she spends at least two hours with each potential client going over the legal process and asking some hard questions.

"I ask them if it wouldn't be better to find another job and spend the money on counseling and then move on with their life. I want them to be aware of the invasion a lawsuit will have into their privacy. I don't paint a cynical picture, I paint a practical picture," Endriss said.

Only about one out of five eventually decide to sue, said Endriss, and of those who file a claim, nearly all settle before reaching the courtroom. Endriss said she has never taken a sexual-harassment case into court in her 11 years of handling such claims.

A lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court today would not get a court date until June 1993, said Lonnquist. In the interim, clients face depositions in which they repeatedly must tell their story, appointments with medical doctors and psychiatrists as requested by the defendant, on-the-job retaliation, possible unemployment and need for counseling and, finally, the possibility that the defendant could sue for defamation.

Then there are the bills. Most sexual-harassment claims are taken on a contingency basis, which means that if the suit is unsuccessful, the attorney receives no fees. Some attorneys, though, request a retainer fee of up to $10,000, and there are court costs for depositions and witnesses up to $20,000 or more. The attorney's fees may go as high as $200,000, usually paid by the defendant if the case is successful.

But the rewards can be large when a jury finds in favor of a client. In one of the larger sexual-harassment awards locally, Seattle City Light was ordered in 1989 to pay a former worker $315,000 because the utility ignored her complaints. And last week, a Renton woman was awarded $87,491 in damages from The Boeing Co. - including $71,250 in emotional damages - after a jury found Boeing negligent in not protecting her from a co-worker's sexual harassment.

Lonnquist said clients tell her when their case is over that they'd never want to go through the process again, but they "feel vindicated because people believed them." The clients, usually women, also are proud of standing up for what they believe in and hope their employers have learned to take seriously someone claiming sexual harassment, she said.

Lindy Cater, executive director of the Northwest Women's Law Center in Seattle, said she hopes the recent headlines will educate people about sexual harassment and how prevalent it is.

"The problem won't stop until more women have the courage to step forward, use the system to their advantage and confront the issues," Cater said. "If nothing else, the threat of a lawsuit and damages that can go into millions will cause people to realize this is not something to be swept away and ignored."

As Julia Waterman awaits her day in court, she reminds herself she is fighting to regain the self-esteem she believes she lost during the six months she says she was sexually harassed at her job.

"You have to be very determined," said Waterman. "But if I didn't go through this process, I know I would regret it because I didn't defend myself. People should not have to tolerate this kind of harassment. This is just too important to give up now."

---------------------------- THE LAW ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT ----------------------------

-- Sexual harassment is defined as any repeated and unwanted verbal or physical sexual advances made by someone in your workplace that make you uncomfortable or interfere with your job performance. Harassment can include verbal innuendos and suggestive comments, leering, gestures or unwanted physical contact.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual harassment, and lawsuits claiming such harassment have been successfully filed since the late 1970s. In a landmark case in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court said sexual conduct and lewd statements violated civil rights if the conduct became a condition of getting or keeping a job or created a hostile work environment. In 1988, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines saying someone could prove sexual harassment "based solely on the credibility of the victim's allegation."

Retaliating against someone who files a claim - demoting or firing the person, for instance - is also against the law.


Experts say employees should first try to handle the problem within their companies and take advantage of stated policies about sexual harassment, including union procedures if applicable. If the supervisor does not address the problem, then the victim can contact higher management or the discrimination officer within the company, usually someone in the personnel or human-resources department.

Though there is no law requiring a firm to have a sexual-harassment policy, most larger firms do so in the context of workplace discrimination.


Victims can pursue a claim with a government agency at the same time they are pressing the case within the workplace.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 2815 Second Ave., Suite 500, Seattle 98121 Phone: 553-0968, 1-800-USA-EEOC Restrictions: File within six months; companies must have 15 or more employees. No damages for emotional distress.

Washington State Human Rights Commission 1511 Third Ave., No. 921, Seattle 98101 Phone: 464-6500 Restrictions: File within six months; companies must have eight or more employees. Maximum award for emotional damage, $1,000.

King County Office of Civil Rights and Compliance King County Courthouse, Seattle 98104 Phone: 296-7652 Restrictions: File within six months; companies must have eight or more employees and be in unincorporated areas of King County. Maximum award for emotional damage, $1,000.

Seattle Human Rights Department 700 Third Ave., Suite 250, Seattle 98104 Phone: 684-4500 Restrictions: File within six months; companies must have four or more employees and be within city limits. Maximum award for emotional damage, $1,000.

FOR OTHER INFORMATION: Northwest Women's Law Center information and referral line, 621-7691.

Seattle Office for Women's Rights, 700 Third Ave., Suite 940, Seattle 98104, 684-0390.

9to5's Job Problem Hotline, 1-800-522-0925; the Cleveland-based group speaks out on workplace issues relating to women.