Symbols permeate sex-harassment suit Court hears arguments today

October 13, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Surrounded by symbolism, Teresa Harris will take a seat in the Supreme Court chamber this morning to watch -- somewhat uneasily -- the latest and perhaps last act in her role as a bit player in the history of America's female workers.

Ms. Harris, who gave up her job in a Tennessee equipment rental company rather than listen to more sexual taunts from her boss, is the key figure in a case that may force fundamental changes in the way men and women deal with each other in the workplace.

From a good seat in the audience, the 41-year-old Nashville woman, now a nurse, will look up during one-hour oral arguments and see two female justices on the court -- the first time that has happened on a woman's rights case to go before that bench. Coincidentally, they are women -- Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- who were turned down for the first jobs they wanted after law school because they were women.

The court is confronting a claim of sexual discrimination for the first time since Justice Ginsburg, who made a reputation as a lawyer fighting sex bias, became a member of the court.

There will be another "first" about Ms. Harris' case, and it is one that leaves her noticeably unsettled as she declines to talk about in an interview here. Hers is the first sexual harassment case to be heard by the court since that issue gained national prominence in 1991, nearly costing Justice Clarence Thomas a place on the bench.

Back in the summer of 1991, after Ms. Harris was already on the way toward losing her legal battle against dirty talk and smutty gestures in the workplace, she, like much of the nation, watched the televised Senate hearings with Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill accusing Judge Thomas of practicing the same kinds of sexual harassment when he was her boss in the government. He flatly and angrily denied all of the allegations.

"I watched, yes," she says, almost defensively, about those hearings. But when pressed, she will say no more, suggesting it would not be "prudent." Justice Thomas is expected to be on the bench for the case. One of her lawyers, sitting nearby, looks relieved as the topic passes.

Ms. Harris sat for an interview at the offices here of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, another sign that her case is no longer just a personal matter but is in fact a cause, potentially a milestone in the changing behavior in U.S. offices and factories.

Not a celebrity

For herself, she insists, "I don't really think I am a celebrity," a suggestion somewhat lost on a string of journalists and network TV talk shows pursuing Ms. Harris as she came to town over the weekend to go sightseeing before her visit to the courtroom today.

For Ms. Harris, there already has been one personal victory. The court, which hears only about 100 cases a year, picked hers out as one to hear. She beat the "insurmountable odds," she says proudly. But, she makes clear, that will not be victory enough.

The experience of going from an individual with a legal fight to being the central figure in a legal drama has been "very frightening to me -- because it's simply about Teresa Harris and Charles Hardy," the boss found to have harassed her but not enough to break the law. (Mr. Hardy's lawyers have declined requests for interviews with him.)

Should the court rule against Ms. Harris, "my case, I would have to say, would not have been worth it. From the standpoint of

what those ramifications would be for other women, it would not have been worth it."

Her case goes back to the mid-1980s, when she was a rental manager for Forklift Systems Inc. in Nashville. She was one of six rental managers. Two were women: Ms. Harris and Mr. Hardy's daughter.

According to a magistrate's findings, Mr. Hardy asked female workers to take quarters out of his front trousers pockets, threw objects on the floor and asked them to reach down as he eyed their figures, called her "a dumb-ass woman," once remarked "Let's go to the Holiday Inn to negotiate your raise," and told women that their breasts would grow if they ate more corn.

Magistrate Ken Sandidge III of Nashville said that was offensive conduct but not "so severe as to be expected to seriously affect [her] psychological well-being." Without that kind of injury, she could not win, the magistrate ruled. Other courts agreed, and Ms. Harris thus lost.

If she wins at the Supreme Court, she and other women would only have to show that sexually offensive comments or gestures by fellow workers interfered with a woman's ability to do a job, whether or not she suffered psychological harm. Even comments intended to be jokes could offend a woman enough to be illegal.

Her case, Ms. Harris says now, "stopped being Teresa Harris vs. Charles Hardy on the day Magistrate Sandidge rendered his opinion." While insisting that she felt inadequate to the task, Ms. Harris says, she decided at that point to press on with the case, going as far as the courts would let her take it.

Career change

As the case moved along, she went back to college and got a nursing degree. She is now on the staff of a teaching hospital in Nashville. She declines to identify the hospital, saying that she has received annoying calls and does not want to encourage more.

At the time she began losing her case in Magistrate Sandidge's court, she recalls now saying to herself: "What's wrong with this picture? This cannot be right." But, she adds, "it happened to me, and I knew it was happening to other women."

Since her case has become more visible, other women have let her know they are counting on her to lead the way, she notes. They are telling her, she says, that the case may change the

culture of the workplace.

She said that when she watches the court hearing today, she will be looking to the bench to watch nine justices, not just two. As she watches Justices O'Connor and Ginsburg, she insists, she will be looking up only to see two "obviously very qualified jurists."

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