Woman sues boss, cites name-calling She says language drove her from job

September 14, 1993|By Gregg Zoroya | Gregg Zoroya,Orange County Register

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- A word allegedly drove Bonnie Severson from her job.

In a sexual-harassment lawsuit, Ms. Severson is demanding $900,000, alleging that her boss, Orange County courts chief Robert Kuhel, repeatedly used the word "bitch" and variations of Ms. Severson contends that Mr. Kuhel, administrator of the Central Orange County Municipal Court in Santa Ana, used the word to her face. Sometimes he preceded it with phrases such as "hard-hearted," "cold-hearted," or "queen," court papers allege. And he also used other harsh language about women in general and Ms. Severson specifically, she contends.

Mr. Kuhel denies the charges. In sworn pretrial testimony, he says only that he once gave Ms. Severson a novelty gift, a note pad with the epithet inscribed on it after the phrase: "From the desk of the . . . "

Both sides say the case will shape up largely as her word against his on whether Mr. Kuhel used sexist language. And legal scholars clash over whether using the word automatically equals sexual harassment.

"The problem is -- and this gets into a whole messy area [legally] -- women call each other that. Is that sexual harassment?" said Susan Estrich, professor of law at the University of Southern California, former campaign chief for Michael S. Dukakis and author of "Sex at Work."

"One of the areas in sexual-harassment law that's sometimes difficult is: When is offensive conduct sexual harassment and when is it just offensive?" Ms. Estrich said.

The issue, said Ms. Estrich and others, is whether the language is aimed at one's gender and whether its repeated use creates a hostile environment too difficult to work in.

Ms. Severson, 54, of Santa Ana said that's exactly what happened. She said that despite her high marks for job performance, she was denied a promotion and then was so harassed by Mr. Kuhel that she was forced to take early retirement from her $36,000-per-year job in 1988. She also suffered stress-related health problems, her lawyer said.

"That [derogatory] talk is appropriate in a barroom atmosphere or a male-bonding situation," Ms. Severson said. "But it's absolutely inappropriate on the business level."

In court documents, Mr. Kuhel's lawyer, Charles Matheis Jr., said Ms. Severson had a reputation befitting the word, but he has said he won't use truth as a defense.

He says that Mr. Kuhel never used the language and that even if he did, it is not sexual harassment.

Earlier this year, an arbitrator found in Mr. Kuhel's favor. Ms. Severson then demanded a jury trial, now set for Jan. 24.

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