Seven Years, Still No Answer

Gender Discrimination

The sexual discrimination case of former Facilities Maintenance employee Charlotte Walters against the University appeared precipitously near a resolution last month. Lawyers for both sides completed their final arguments before the Boston Federal Court jury, bringing to an end a two-week trial of the case which has so far taken seven years to litigate.

But because a six-member jury and a federal judge cast the facts in the Walters' case in widely different lights the suit could well continue long into the future. Both sides now plan to appeal aspects of last month's rulings on the six discrimination claims in the Walters case--which split five for Harvard, one for Walters. A decision on the appeals could take at least six months to begin, court officials said this week--provided there are no further legal challenges.

At the heart of the Walters case is the definition of sexual harassment. Lawyers for the former Harvard employee have counted on a broad definition of sexual harassment--to include harassment of women because they are women, even if the behavior is not of a sexual nature. In a setback for Walters, Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity disagreed with such an interpretation, and ruled that at most Walters proved discrimination, not harassment. And in his rulings, he threw out the five claims he had to consider.

The jury was charged with deciding the one count that dealt with financial compensation. And the six-member panel, after two days of deliberations, found discrimination in the University's handling of the case and awarded Walters $75,000 in damages, ruling that Harvard had broken its contract with the former Facilities Maintenance worker by ignoring her sexual harassment complaints.

In his comments from the bench, Garrity apparently disagreed with the sentiment behind the jury verdict, saying, "Harvard and its supervisors [did] their level best to assist the plaintiff through a very difficult period in her life."

Walters' troubles with the University began in 1981, when she formally charged that Harvard and her two supervisors failed to respond to her complaints that a co-worker was harassing her. Walters claimed that when she was promoted to acting crew chief that year the occasional taunts at work became menacing and sometimes violent threats. She says another Facilities Maintenance worker, James Tegan, threw a lit firecracker at her--and was not adequately disciplined by her immediate supervisors. At first Tegan was suspended for a day, but later he was reinstated, and paid for the missed wages.

The two supervisors were cleared of all charges through a decision by the judge, who also dismissed claims of discrimination under state and federal civil rights acts and Chapter 151b of the state code. The jury, however, found discrimination under Harvard's anti-discrimination contract with Walters' union.

Harvard attorney Allan A. Ryan said he would appeal the jury's decision, claiming that "the evidence simply doesn't support" the jury's verdict.

"The judge ruled unequivocably that Harvard had not discriminated against Charlotte Walters," said Ryan, who filed a motion last week asking Garrity to reconsider the jury's decision.

Under federal law, a judge may only throw out a jury's verdict if "no evidence [has been presented] from which a rational jury could have concluded a breach of contract," Ryan said. He said Harvard had a "reasonably good chance" that the judge would overturn the jury's verdict when he examines the post-trial motions next month.

Plaintiff attorney Anne Gilmore, however, said she thought there was little chance Garrity would overturn the jury's verdict. She said she thought that the Harvard attorneys were appealing the case because "the worst thing for Harvard is to have a finding of discrimination against them."

Gilmore said she planned to appeal the judge's decisions because Walters had not achieved her main goal in the case, which is to force Harvard to establish better sexual harassment prevention procedures. To do this, the judge would have to award Walters "injunctive relief," one of the five claims which Garrity dismissed in court.

Walters said Harvard's sexual discrimination procedures were not satisfactory, stating that "to this day, Harvard does not have a training procedure" for introducing women into traditionally all-male fields. Walters was the second woman to work for Facilities Maintenance when she was hired in 1979.

Sally Zeckhauser, vice-president for administration, who oversees Facilities Maintenance, said that in recent years opportunities for women have changed at Harvard. She said that the lack of other harassment complaints is an indicator that there is a nondiscriminatory work environment at Harvard.

Gilmore, who has filed post-trial motions asking Garrity to reconsider his decisions, said that Garrity's "unprecedented" interpretation of the harassment statutes in this case set back those laws 20 years.

"Mere discrimination on the basis of sex does not connote sexual harassment," Garrity said in court.

"You might say that Judge Garrity has a blind spot whan it comes to sexual discrimination. Every woman's group in the country will line up with us in our appeal," Gilmore said.

Although hearings for the post-trial motions are scheduled for next month, the judge's decision could take up to six months. After that, decisions on the appeal could take up to a year, Gilmore said.