Commission is reviewing bias case against company Office of Human Rights earlier found 'no cause' for woman's allegations

November 06, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

In an unusual move, the Howard County Human Rights Commission is reviewing a racial and sexual harassment case against the owner of a Jessup distribution company despite a ruling from the county's Office of Human Rights that there is not enough evidence to support the allegations.

The commission began hearings Monday night on an appeal filed by Michelle D. Livingston of Severn who says she was the target of inappropriate racial and sexual jokes while employed in 1994 at George J. Marshall & Sons Inc., which purchases and distributes beach equipment.

The commission's decision to convene a hearing on the case came after the Office of Human Rights found "no reasonable cause" to support Livingston's allegations of racial and sexual harassment.

Few cases are reviewed or reach the hearing stage.

"The Office of Human Rights does an excellent job in investigating and doing findings," said Jan Nyquist, who chairs the three-member Human Rights Commission. "But if we feel that there is enough concern on our part that it would be in the public's best interest to have a hearing, we will go ahead and hold a hearing.

James E. Henson III, administrator of the Office of Human Rights, said the commission's decision to proceed with a hearing is not a criticism of his office.

"It's a checks-and-balance system," Henson said. "It's well within the commission's authority to look at a close case and say they want to hear it. This was clearly a close case, but I think the findings speak for themselves."

C. Diane Wallace-Booker, Livingston's attorney, said her client was pleased by the commission's decision to proceed with the hearings, but is puzzled by the report from the Office of Human Rights.

"With all of the information they had at the time, they could have made a reasonable cause finding," Wallace-Booker said.

Hearings are unusual. Nyquist said the commission heard only four of 115 cases filed this year with the Office of Human Rights.

The office investigates claims of job and housing discrimination. If a case is not settled, the Human Rights Commission reviews it.

Livingston, who filed discrimination charges May 9, 1995, alleges that Vernon Marshall Jr., co-owner of the company with his brother Kenneth, consistently referred to her ethnicity and directed inappropriate comments at her after she was hired as an accountant Jan. 24, 1994.

"Vernon Marshall Jr. made lewd remarks to me, such as 'I bet black women are good in bed,' " Livingston told investigator Robert L. Coggins, according to his reports.

Livingston, who resigned Dec. 13, 1994, also said she was not permitted to watch television or read books or make personal phone calls, all things that her white colleagues were allowed to do.

Other former employees told Coggins that Marshall and his brother Kenneth used inappropriate language.

But Vernon Marshall told Coggins he did not make racial comments or the offensive jokes that Livingston alleged. Marshall also said he allowed Livingston to read books and make personal calls when business was slow.

James K. Eagan III, Marshall's lawyer, wrote to the Office of Human Rights, arguing that Livingston was retaliating because his client refused to pay her extra for training her replacement.

Susan Szerniple, a secretary for Marshall for 12 years, acknowledged that her boss curses a lot, but said he does not slander minorities, according to a written interview with Coggins.

A decision and order filed July 31, 1996, by Coggins and his boss Henson said there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that sexual and racial comments made by Livingston's colleagues created a hostile work environment.

The report noted that no witnesses corroborated Livingston's complaints. But the ruling did not sway Livingston, who filed an appeal Aug. 23, 1996.

Efforts to reach Livingston and Marshall were unsuccessful.

Wallace-Booker, Livingston's attorney, said Marshall's comments affected her client, whose grades at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County slipped from A's and B's to C's.

But Eagan questioned why Livingston waited six months before she filed the complaint.

"Everyone perceives what someone else says differently," Eagan said. "But he didn't treat her any differently than anybody else."

The commission's next hearing on the case is Nov. 13.

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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