Senate hearing will probably be 'like a mini-rape trial' Lawyer says harassment claims are very familiar.

October 11, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Michael L. Foreman knows exactly how today's Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas showdown is going to play: "It's like a mini-rape trial."

Foreman, who as general counsel of the Maryland Human Relations Commission has pursued dozens of sexual harassment cases, won't venture to guess who's telling the truth. But he said the Hill-Thomas imbroglio resembles other, less celebrated cases, like some of those currently before the commission.

"What you're seeing in the Clarence Thomas case is what happens in every sexual harassment case," said Foreman, who, like the Supreme Court nominee and the university professor, once worked at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The pattern, which Foreman has seen evolve over 10 years, goes like this: The woman comes forward. The man denounces her as a liar. His co-workers or superiors, without investigating the matter, rush to judgment. It can never transcend the limits of he-said/she-said.

"It's unfortunate it takes a case like this to get the public's attention. When I started in Pennsylvania, I saw egregious cases," Foreman said. "[But] this is the first time everyone is saying this is an important issue."

In fact, the most unusual aspect of the Hill-Thomas case is that it involves white-collar workers, Foreman said. In his experience, blue-collar women are more likely to come forward and complain about sexual harassment.

Does it make a better case if touching is involved? "Then they ask, why didn't she scream?" Foreman replied. Are the accused sometimes simply confused about what constitutes sexual harassment? "They're not the cases that are litigated," he said.

Before a case becomes public, the commission's staff first must investigate the complaint and determine if there is probable cause. The agency then is required by law to try to reach an agreement between the two parties. If that fails, the case is certified for a public hearing in an administrative law court and the legal staff steps in.

Of the 50 cases pending at the commission, seven involve sexual harassment charges. That's a significant percentage, Foreman said, considering the range of discrimination cases the commission must cover.

Some of the state's active cases, detailed in papers provided by Foreman, include:

* Perhaps the best-known case involves Paula J. Haavistola, a volunteer ambulance aide for the Rising Sun Volunteer Fire Department.

Haavistola, with the department almost three years, was suspended in March 1990 after she complained she had been fondled by a co-worker. A year later, the firefighter was acquitted of fourth-degree sexual assault by a Cecil County Circuit Court, reversing a District Court ruling.

Haavistola contends she was dismissed for filing charges against her co-worker, who also was suspended. In addition to her case with the Human Relations Commission, she also has filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit in federal court.

Under Maryland law, Foreman said, women who hope to recover punitive damages must file cases through federal court or state circuit court. In administrative law hearings, the only financial compensation available is back pay. "We can litigate. We can win," Foreman said. "But probably what we're going to get is a decision that says: 'Don't do it again.' "

* In April 1988, a cashier at a Baltimore supermarket was asked to sort potatoes. She told the Human Relations Commission that the store's assistant manager ordered another employee to leave the room, then blocked her exit.

"He placed his hand up her skirt and pulled her panty hose and underwear down," the charge states. "While [he] was doing this, he stated, 'Let me feel it, I want to see something.'"

The woman freed herself by striking the man in the groin, then reported the assault to the store's security guard. But the store's co-owner -- also the assailant's father-in-law -- refused to take any action.

The man was found guilty of sexual battery in city District Court, but the woman had lost her job by then. The store's owner claimed it was because she could not find a baby sitter for her child.

* Two Eastern Shore women have complained about the same supervisor in a Board of Education's Transportation Department.

According to one woman's complaint, the man used his power to award overtime and field trip assignments to certain women in his employ. Initially, this woman "did not reject his advances." During the 1986-87 school year, she earned much more money than the other drivers, including one who was involved with the supervisor.

Before the next school year began, however, this driver decided to start dating someone else. Her earnings, which had peaked at $1,500 a month the year before, dropped to $400 a month. When she complained to the man's supervisor, he advised her to find another job.

The other woman, who worked as a driver and trainer, rebuffed the man's advances from the beginning. She even brought her children to work so she wouldn't have to be alone with the man. She was laid off in June 1987 and never recalled.

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