Scientist wins disability suit against the NIH Narcoleptic says sex bias exacerbated her condition

November 22, 1991|By Jonathan Bor

A female scientist who claims discrimination against women runs rampant at the prestigious National Institutes of Health has won a federal court ruling that she was unlawfully denied flexible working conditions for a handicap and pressured into retirement.

Dr. Sharon Johnson, a biochemist who now owns an Edgewater flower shop, said yesterday that the decision finally brings legitimacy to the claims of many women who have suffered job discrimination and sexual harassment at the nation's leading medical research center.

"This is a very very big issue," said Dr. Johnson, who lives in Annapolis. "I've never seen so much [discrimination and harassment of women] in my life, and I've worked at a lot of places. It needs to be pushed. It is there."

An expert in the ways enzymes affect human functioning, Dr. Johnson earned her doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and held positions at Vassar College, the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie-Mellon Institute before joining NIH in 1979.

In a ruling last week, Senior U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray ordered NIH to reinstate Dr. Johnson to an appropriate job in her old salary classification and to pay $57,600 in back wages.

Judge Murray ruled that her employers failed to let her arrive at work 30 minutes late or early -- an accommodation she proposed as a way of dealing with her handicap, a neurologic illness called narcolepsy -- and then made her work environment so miserable she finally agreed to file for disability retirement.

The judge agreed that her immediate supervisor called her "Luv" and occasionally touched her on the shoulders -- behavior that "may in fact have constituted sexual harassment." But he said she failed to prove that his conduct was so severe and pervasive to constitute "an abusive working environment."

Even so, two female colleagues who are waging sex discrimination cases against NIH hailed the ruling as a victory, and hand-delivered a letter to NIH Director Bernadine Healy's office yesterday urging "swift action" against managers who have harassed and discriminated against women and handicapped persons.

A spokesman for Dr. Healy said yesterday NIH is reviewing the court decision and would have no immediate comment on the ruling.

"It's encouraging that these cases can be won," said Dr. Maureen Polsby, one of the people who signed the letter. Dr. Polsby, a neurologist, charges in a pending lawsuit that her male supervisor sexually harassed her and then, along with other male co-workers, stole her research data, fabricated other results and published fraudulent "findings" in a medical journal.

"These are people who would step over their own grandmothers to head their laboratory," said Dr. Polsby, who left NIH and now works at the Social Security Administration in Baltimore. "The place just operates that way. Everybody knows there are problems at NIH, but few people are willing to try to do something about it."

In a phone interview, Dr. Johnson said she had managed for many years to keep her narcolepsy from interfering with her job by sleeping at least nine hours each night. Narcolepsy subjects people to sudden bouts of drowsiness or sleep.

The illness flared up in 1984 when, at a new job assignment, she was subjected to her boss' sexual overtures.

"From my first day on the job, my supervisor sexually harassed me by touching, rubbing, kissing and embracing me, by making offensive sexual gestures and comments." She said she was so afraid of him that she wouldn't go into rooms where she'd be alone with him.

Dr. Johnson, who also suffers from a heart condition, said her supervisor's behavior placed so much pressure on her that she made two trips to a hospital emergency rooms with severe heart rhythm abnormalities and another for a stress-related affliction of the esophagus dis- orders.

To deal with her worsening narcolepsy, she asked her supervisor to allow her flexible hours. That way, she could pull off the road during her hourlong commute and rest if she suddenly became drowsy, or she could leave the house early to beat rush hour.

She said she took her request to higher levels -- including a handicapped coordinator and the equal employment office -- but all she received were offers of counseling and her supervisor's recommendation that she join a car pool.

Dr. Johnson said she told an equal opportunity officer about the sexual harassment some time after beginning her fight for flexible work hours and was rebuffed with the comment: " 'Oh, come on, Sharon, what's going on here? Why don't you stick with your reasonable accommodation request?' "

She left in 1986, and worked for a few years as a visiting scientist at the Johns Hopkins University.

A year ago, she purchased a flower shop.

Although she is unsure how her new job will be chosen, Dr. Johnson said she looks forward to resuming her scientific career at NIH. "That's my work. I have a lot of friends there," Dr. Johnson said.

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