To Wright, Decision Wasn't Even a Close Call
By Ruth Marcus
Almost no one saw it coming.
Among lawyers who specialize in sexual harassment cases, the conventional legal wisdom about Jones v. Clinton was that it was a weak case, but one that would most likely survive the president's effort to have it dismissed. Numerous legal experts predicted that U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright would let the lawsuit go to trial, either because any case that could be viewed as a close call gets to the jury, or because of the outside pressures confronting the judge in such a high-profile case.
Yesterday, Wright already overturned by higher courts once in the case took the bold step of dismissing the suit outright. In an unwavering 39-page ruling, Wright betrayed some exasperation with Paula Jones and her lawyers, and made clear that despite the comments of the legal experts she did not see the case as a close call at all.
Rather, she said, the incident as Jones claims it happened, while "boorish and offensive," simply did not constitute sexual harassment punishable by law.
"Whether other women may have been subjected to workplace harassment, and whether such evidence has allegedly been suppressed, does not change the fact that plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that she has a case worthy of submitting to the jury," Wright said, referring to the evidence introduced in the case about Bill Clinton's alleged involvement with other women.
Wright did not address whether she thought Clinton, as Jones alleges, made a lewd advance toward her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991, when he was governor and she was a state employee. What she ruled on was whether such an act was illegal.
Courts have recognized two types of situations that can constitute sexual harassment: quid pro quo harassment, in which an employee argues that he or she was punished for failing to comply with a supervisor's sexual advances, and "hostile workplace environment" claims, covering the far murkier cases in which the harassment was alleged to be "so severe or pervasive that it created an abusive working environment."
Jones had asserted both forms of sexual harassment, and also accused Clinton of both conspiring with former Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson to violate her civil rights and harming her by inflicting intentional emotional distress.
Wright quickly disposed of what the experts had identified as the weakest of Jones's claims, the quid pro quo harassment. She said Jones's lawyers were wrong in contending that their client did not have to supply any proof that she was harmed for failing to comply with Clinton's alleged advance.
And she said the evidence of harm that her lawyers did put forward that Jones was discouraged from applying for more attractive state jobs, had her desk moved, her responsibilities changed and failed to receive flowers on Secretary's Day fell far short of making a convincing case. Indeed, Wright noted, after the alleged incident in 1991, Jones received two satisfactory job evaluations, a cost-of-living increase and a merit raise.
"Although it is not clear why plaintiff failed to receive flowers on Secretary's Day in 1992, such an omission does not give rise to a federal cause of action," Wright said.
The bigger surprise came in her analysis of whether there was a legitimate claim based on a claim that the alleged incident created a "hostile work environment." Courts have allowed lawsuits to go forward based on a single incident, as Jones's case essentially was, if the conduct alleged is particularly egregious.
A number of legal experts said they thought that Jones's allegations did not create a strong hostile environment case but were close enough that jurors should be allowed to decide for themselves.
"What she alleges Clinton did is so crude and offensive that she is likely to get to a jury," Jean Boler, a plaintiff's lawyer in Minneapolis, said when asked to assess the case before the ruling.
But Wright didn't see it that way. "This is ... not one of those exceptional cases in which a single incident of sexual harassment, such as an assault, was deemed sufficient to state a claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment," she said.
The judge said the alleged incident, and a few other purported encounters Jones had with Clinton and Ferguson, "do not constitute the kind of sustained and nontrivial conduct necessary for a claim of hostile work environment."
Wright noted that Jones did not miss a day of work over the incident, remained at her state job for 19 more months, continued to go to the governor's office daily to deliver material without asking to be relieved of that duty, did not complain to her supervisors and did not seek any professional help.
Once the sexual harassment charge was out of the case, the alleged conspiracy count had to be dismissed as well. That left Wright with Jones's stated claim that the alleged incident amounted to intentional infliction of emotional distress. But, as with the hostile environment claim, Wright wasted little time in tossing this argument out too.
She pointed out that Jones had initially claimed she suffered marital discord as a result of Clinton's alleged conduct, then said in her deposition that she was not asserting such damages. And Wright said she didn't give any credence to a last-minute declaration "from a purported expert" who, after a 3o-hour meeting with Jones nearly seven years after the alleged incident, found her suffering from "severe emotional distress and consequent sexual aversion."
"Plaintiff's actions and statements in this case do not portray someone who experienced emotional distress so severe in nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it," Wright said.
While the betting on whether Wright would dismiss the case had been to the contrary, there had been some earlier glimmerings of the judge's unhappiness with the case. Three years ago, she granted Clinton's request to delay any trial in the case until after he left office, a ruling ultimately reversed by the Supreme Court.
And in a carefully worded ruling last year on Clinton's earlier motion to dismiss the case, Wright threw out some claims and made clear she had qualms about just how strong the counts were that she didn't throw out. She said she would allow Jones to proceed with pretrial discovery in order to see if they could be supported, a test that Wright said yesterday Jones had failed to meet.
"That judge is a gutsy lady," said David Kadue, a Los Angeles management lawyer. "It is a close call and a lot of judges with a close call like that are just going to let the case go to the jury."
Indeed, Kadue said Wright runs a significant risk of being reversed on appeal on her dismissal of the hostile environment claim. "I wonder whether she's just a little bit ticked off at the Jones lawyers for bringing up the names of these women whose names were supposed to be kept confidential, and tempted as a human being to send these guys a message that she doesn't like it," he said. "One of the ways to do that is to throw their case out and make them take an appeal."
Others said they were equally surprised but thought Wright had ruled correctly. "It's a courageous decision but it is a correct application of the law," Debra S. Katz, a plaintiff's lawyer here, said of the ruling yesterday. She said the trend among judges was to dismiss sexual harassment claims based on a single incident.
"This is what's happening routinely to litigants in sexual harassment cases around the country and the fact that she treated President Clinton as any other litigant is I think courageous given the political climate," Katz said.
Washington University law professor Jane Aiken said Jones's suit "has been on shaky legal ground from the beginning," but worried that there will be a backlash. "Many people think this is a typical sexual harassment case, but it is really atypical in how far it has gone based on the facts of the case, the funding, and the scope of discovery," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company