Woman in NAACP suit to appear in court in D.C.

August 17, 1994|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer Sun staff writers Karen Hosler and Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Mary E. Stansel, the elusive Washington lawyer whose lawsuit against NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. has caused serious turmoil in the 85-year old civil rights organization, is scheduled to appear in court here today for a hearing in an unrelated case.

Ms. Stansel has steadfastly avoided media attention since her suit against Dr. Chavis became public late last month. She has not returned repeated phone calls from The Sun and has not commented publicly on the case.

Today's court action stems from a lawsuit Ms. Stansel filed in July against two tenants in a basement apartment she owns in Northeast Washington for alleged failure to pay rent they owe her.

Ms. Stansel gained notoriety last month after she sued Dr. Chavis and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for allegedly reneging on a secret deal to settle her complaint that she was sexually harassed and wrongfully dismissed by Dr. Chavis. Dr. Chavis has denied her allegations and said he agreed to a settlement with Ms. Stansel last fall to save the NAACP embarrassment.

On Saturday, the NAACP board of directors is to hold a special session in Baltimore to discuss Dr. Chavis' decision to use up to $332,400 in NAACP funds to settle her claim without consulting the board.

Ms. Stansel, a lawyer, briefly worked as Dr. Chavis' assistant at the NAACP in the spring of 1993, soon after he took over as executive director.

Her scheduled court appearance today in Washington is her latest involvement in a series of separate legal disputes.

Since 1980, she has pursued at least three cases in small claims court here in addition to lawsuits against Eastern Airlines, the National Bar Association and an 81-year-old Washington woman who sold a house to her in 1991.

Attorneys and defendants involved in the small claims cases against Ms. Stansel painted a picture of a difficult opponent who, some said, sued with little cause.

"She sued my client for something that could easily have been worked out without going to court," said John C. Floyd III, a Washington lawyer who represented a Washington moving company that Ms. Stansel sued for allegedly damaging her furniture and other belongings in 1991. "There was no real substance to the suit." The case was settled with a payment of $350 and two tinted glass doors to Ms. Stansel.

In 1985, Ms. Stansel sued the owners of another Washington moving company, D. C. Van Lines, who, she said, lost a king-sized bedspread worth $149.79.

"I remember the suit because it was so ridiculous," said Randolph Cherry, one of the owners. "We had never heard from her until she sued us. I remember agonizing about having to hire a lawyer to defend such a frivolous suit."

Surviving court records do not show how the case came out but Mr. Cherry insists no money was ever paid to Ms. Stansel. "When we lose something, we admit it," he said. "This was based on nothing."

A native of Alabama, Ms. Stansel came to Washington in 1979 as a legislative aide to newly elected Sen. Howell Heflin. Aides to Mr. Heflin, an Alabama Democrat, said Ms. Stansel left the office "on a disability" in 1991.

In court papers, Ms. Stansel claims she suffered a knee injury after she was struck by a beverage cart on an Eastern Airlines flight in 1983. Ms. Stansel filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the airline but an Atlanta jury awarded her nothing in 1989.

As a result of the same injury, she filed a claim for worker's compensation with the Senate. Her eligibility for benefits was approved July 13, 1991, according to Department of Labor officials. Congressional records show she left Mr. Heflin's staff the day before. The Labor Department officials declined to disclose how much, if any, money Ms. Stansel has collected.

Friends say Ms. Stansel met Dr. Chavis about 1980, after the civil rights leader -- who had been convicted of firebombing a white-owned Wilmington, N. C., grocery store -- was released from prison. Mr. Chavis has refused to comment on his relationship with Ms. Stansel.

Ms. Stansel was among a group of people who lobbied the NAACP board to appoint Dr. Chavis as executive director in 1993. When Dr. Chavis got the job, she was rewarded with an interim job at NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, organizing Dr. Chavis' schedule and working as his personal assistant.

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