Sexual harassment law takes effect swiftly Authorities scramble after Annapolis vote

April 15, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer Staff writer Jay Apperson contributed to this article.

ANNAPOLIS -- The call to the crisis hot line came just hours before Maryland's capital became the first jurisdiction in the state to adopt its own sexual harassment law.

A woman wanted to know where she could turn to stop her boss from harassing her. The hot line counselor gave her advice and referred her to several agencies that help victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Now, the counselor can also pass on the telephone number of the District Court in Annapolis. The city's new law makes sexual harassment a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Employees in Annapolis who lose promotions or jobs by refusing to submit to sexual advances can call the police, or simply go to the courthouse and swear out a criminal complaint. If a District Court commissioner finds probable cause for the case, the employer will be summoned to trial.

The burden of proof is on the victim, said Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who introduced the landmark bill that was overwhelmingly approved Monday night by the City Council.

"In some instances, it's going to be easy. If there were witnesses who saw the behavior, it will be clear," said Mr. Snowden, a Democrat who represents the city's 5th Ward. "Where it's going to be difficult is when there's one person's word against the other."

Yesterday, those charged with enforcing the law were scrambling to get copies of it and line up workshops on sexual harassment.

City Attorney Jonathan Hodgson called the District Court commissioners to arrange a training workshop on the law. Meanwhile, Clayton Greene Jr., who as administrative judge for the District Court oversees the 12 commissioners in Anne Arundel County, said he planned to call to get a copy of the bill.

"It's unusual for a statute to be decided last night and be effective today," he said. Usually, the judiciary has at least two months between when the bill is signed into law and its effective date to educate the commissioners on issues, including standards for ruling on probable cause.

William Roessler, the deputy state's attorney in Anne Arundel County, expects the law to be controversial. "It's going to wind up being tested in the courts -- whether such a charge can hold constitutional muster," he said.

Mr. Roessler said that although Annapolis business leaders are worried that disgruntled employees will use the law to lash out at their bosses, he expects only a handful of complaints to be filed. "I know sexual harassment is out there, but I hope it's not out there so much that we get a lot of these cases," he said.

An employer who believes he or she has been wrongly charged with harassment could call the state's attorney's office in advance to discuss the case before it goes to trial before a judge, he said.

Lisa Carreno, executive director of the Maryland State Commission for Women, said few women are likely to file frivolous charges because the risks are too great. "That's the old opening-the-floodgates argument. I don't think that's a reasonable argument to use against this type of legislation."

Without the Annapolis law, employees who have been subjected to unwanted sexual gestures can file complaints with the Maryland Human Relations Commission. The new law provides speedier recourse for employees who have been fired for refusing to submit to sexual pressure.

It also provides protections for employees of small businesses, closing a loophole in federal and state laws. People who work for companies with fewer than 15 employees are not covered by the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress last year.

"I think that is one of the most important things about this," said Michael Cohen, director of the YWCA Woman's Center in Annapolis. "This is a small town, and most of the complaints we've had were from people working for small employers."

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