Man-to-man harassment in the spotlight today

September 28, 1995|By KIM CLARK | KIM CLARK,SUN STAFF

The case of the male Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. worker who charged that he was sexually harassed by his male supervisor will draw a national spotlight today, when a federal appeals court is asked to decide whether it is illegal for men to sexually harass men.

Because George E. Hopkins Jr. of Linthicum was one of the first people to sue another man for sexual harassment -- and such suits are increasingly common -- a decision in his appeals case not only will set the rule for all federal courts from Maryland to the Carolinas but also could sway courts nationwide in an increasingly hot legal issue.

"This is a big case," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Comstock-Gay said the case is so important that his group joined the national ACLU, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Women's Legal Defense Fund and National Women's Law Center in supporting Mr. Hopkins' appeal.

J. Michael McGuire, attorney for BGE, agreed that the case is key to determining workers' and managers' rights.

If the three-judge panel from the Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides that the federal law does cover more than, say, men harassing women, "it would put a greater burden on employers," said Mr. McGuire of Baltimore-based Shawe & Rosenthal.

Mr. Hopkins' case received headlines across the country last December when a U.S. District Court judge threw out his sexual harassment lawsuit against BGE.

Mr. Hopkins, who had worked in the utility's photographic shop, had complained that his boss had harassed him by, among other actions, staring at him and making suggestive comments in the bathroom during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Both Mr. Hopkins and his boss lost their BGE jobs in 1993 during a restructuring of the utility company. His boss, Ira Swadow, has denied Mr. Hopkins' allegations.

Senior U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II dismissed Mr. Hopkins' suit before it got to trial, ruling that the federal law banning sexual harassment does not cover harassment when the victim and perpetrator are of the same sex.

The judge also found that since Mr. Swadow was also alleged to have harassed women, he could not be found to be in violation of the law -- which is founded on an anti-discrimination statute -- since he treated men and women equally badly.

The ruling was welcomed by employers' representatives. But it drew outrage from employment lawyers and others who warned that it could open millions of workers to sexual harassment and set a dangerous precedent.

And in the 10 months that it has taken for Mr. Hopkins to win an appeals hearing, courts in a half-dozen other cities have split over whether the law covers same-sex harassment or not, said Mr. Hopkins' attorney, Lee Hoshall.

Mr. Hoshall said he will ask the appeals court to overturn Judge Harvey's dismissal and send the case back to Baltimore for a trial because letting the ruling stand "would be a green light to harassers."

Sara L. Mandelbaum, New York-based attorney for the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, said she will join Mr. Hoshall before the judges today to help mold an issue she believes will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court.

BGE declined to comment on the case yesterday.

But the company's attorney, Mr. McGuire, said his client expects the appeals court to uphold the dismissal for a variety of reasons: because Mr. Swadow's alleged conduct wasn't so bad, because of the "equal opportunity harasser" exemption and because the law doesn't cover same-sex harassment.

"Ideally, every workplace would be free of insults and everyone would be treated with decency," Mr. McGuire said.

"But that cannot be manufactured by the courts.

"The law doesn't outlaw every dirty word."

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