Karen Kouri says she thought that if she let her boss know she was happily married and focused on her job, the little notes and gifts would stop coming. She says she also thought he would eventually tire of walking her to her car and the bathroom every day.
Her boss, personnel director James N. Todd, told her that he was escorting her for her own safety, and that the gifts were a token of his appreciation, according to Kouri. But after several months of unwanted attention, Kouri, 40, says she began to get severe migraine headaches.
For many months, she complained to friends, but not to company officials, out of fear of being fired, Kouri said. When she finally complained, she alleged she got little support from her employer. After eight months on the job as a secretary, Kouri, who had just been given a promotion and a raise, quit.
Last April, Kouri filed a sexual harassment suit in federal court in Alexandria against her former employer, Liberian Services, a ship registry service that is a subsidiary of the giant Arlington-based USLICO Corp. insurance company.
By her account, supported by a neighbor, an office colleague and a hospital roommate, Kouri had become trapped by a type of harassment that stops far short of abusive language, direct requests for sexual favors or threats of reprisals to employees who don't oblige. Instead, she alleges, the harassment came in the form of unwanted, embarrassing attention by her superior.
Indeed, said Todd's attorney, Phillip Hirschkop, Todd thought he and Kouri were friends and he never intended that their relationship go beyond that point. "I fail to find any harassment in this case," Hirschkop said on behalf of Todd, who declined to be interviewed. Jeffrey Hahn, an attorney for USLICO, also said that no sexual harassment occurred.
Workplace consultants say complaints like Kouri's highlight a troubling, expanding region of possible sexual harassment where definitions of misconduct are hard to pin down, but where anxiety or other emotional injury is often real and acute.
Kathleen Neville, a Northern Virginia consultant who advises corporations on how to handle sexual harassment problems, said that Kouri's case is, in fact, "classic, very, very typical."
Stephen F. Anderson, a Denver-based consultant on sexual harassment, said he has seen many cases in which men had problems differentiating between friendship and sexual harassment.
Consultants and lawyers in the field said that some male executives believe that personal gifts are just friendly gestures, notes about back rubs are jokes and hugs are just harmless greetings. And they add that in some cases their female employees agree, depending on their relationship with their bosses.
Anderson said that in his seminars, men "often complain that we are taking the fun out of the workplace. That it's naturally more sexual with women there. That's how we relieve tension. That's how we've always been."
Todd's attorney said his client's actions were friendly and not sexual in nature. He said that Todd was "shocked" when Kouri accused him of sexual harassment.
"The real issue is, did he intend to sexually harass her? If he didn't, but she took it that way, was he insensitive? Or was there a close relationship, and then she went off the deep end?" asked Hirschkop.
The First Day
When Kouri first walked into the Liberian Services Inc. offices at the Reston International Center on Nov. 10, 1987, her immediate impression was, "Yes. This is going to work," she said. The job was less than 10 minutes from her town house, so she could spend more time with her husband and children. And much to her surprise and delight, Todd offered her the job immediately.
But some things struck Kouri as strange from the first day. She said Todd would hover near her desk constantly, something she thought unnecessary since she was an experienced secretary.
One of her former bosses, R. Carl King, who was an independent oil and gas operator in Texas, said Kouri needed little supervision. "She handled everything," he said. " ... She handled the job in an extremely professional manner."
Kouri said that soon after she started work at Liberian, Todd insisted on walking her to her car every evening. She said she was unfamiliar with the neighborhood and thought there could be safety problems. In his deposition, Todd said he escorted Kouri to her car because his parking space was near hers and that she never objected.
Kouri also said that Todd insisted on escorting her to the bathroom, an allegation Todd's attorney said she has made up. In his deposition, Todd said he did not recall walking her to the bathroom.
Kouri also said a series of notes from Todd bothered her. Kouri said Todd never mentioned sex or love, but she said she still thought the notes were inappropriate. "They were like, 'You sure look beautiful today,' or 'Hi, have a happy day,' with a little face drawn on it." Hirschkop said he found nothing in Todd's notes that would constitute sexual harassment.
Then Todd gave Kouri a Tiffany key ring for Christmas. "I said: 'Whoa, this is much too extravagant,' " said Kouri. But Todd insisted she accept the gift and, after discussing it with her husband, she did.
Hirschkop questioned why giving an employee a Christmas gift should be considered unacceptable behavior, saying that some employees might be offended if they were not remembered at Christmas by their bosses.
Kouri said her main concern was that she did not want to lose her job.
Kouri's neighbor, Bonnie Grosz, said that almost from the beginning Kouri complained repeatedly about the attention her boss was giving her. Grosz said she and her husband suggested that Kouri quit. But Grosz said Kouri argued that she had not done anything wrong and therefore should not quit.
While in Fairfax Hospital for back surgery in January 1988, Kouri became extremely angry with Todd.
During the hospital stay, Kouri said Todd frequently called her, visited her and sent her notes and flowers. Hirschkop said that he found it entirely proper for an employer to visit an employee at the hospital and to bring cards or flowers, particularly if he feels they have a friendship.
Kouri's roommate, a Fairfax County schoolteacher whom she had never met before the surgery, said she was amazed by Todd's behavior. "I asked her, 'What is the story with this man,' " the teacher said " ... She would say 'He's been pestering me. He will not leave me alone.' He would call her. He pestered her beyond belief."
Todd would try to sit on Kouri's bed, "which was unbelievable since she was in such pain. Then I'd hear her say 'Please don't sit there,' " said the roommate. Todd would then move off the bed for a while, and then try to sit on the bed again, according to the woman.
He called frequently, according to Kouri and the roommate, who agreed to intercept the calls. "Absolutely at no time did I witness her encourage him," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.
In his deposition, Todd said his visits were short, and he does not recall being asked to leave. He said he would have left if so requested.
Kouri returned to work in March 1988. She said that gradually some of her fellow workers expressed sympathy for her predicament, which made her feel better.
But she said Todd's attentions escalated. For instance, she said that whenever he noticed her stretching her shoulders and back, which was still tender from the surgery, he would try to give her a shoulder and neck rub, even though she objected.
Hirschkop said his client "didn't try to touch any part of her body." Apparently, no other employee witnessed this alleged behavior.
In his deposition, Todd said he hugged Kouri when he was trying to be a supportive friend, but on "very few" occasions. He said they both had problems with their children, which they discussed, and that in learning to deal with his child, he had learned to give platonic hugs to family and friends.
Kouri also said Todd's notes became more intimate, although they still never mentioned love or sex. One note, which Kouri kept, said, "Missed you, but I understand. Backrub?" Hirschkop said he did not find anything constituting sexual harassment in the notes.
In late April, Kouri said she received a note that upset her even more. It said, "Subject: Invitation with the boss. In recognition of your superior performance and contributions to our company objectives, the pleasure of your company is requestion on the evening of May 3, 4, or 5 (pick one or more or all)."
Kouri said, "When I got it, I couldn't believe it was serious." She added that at first Todd refused to tell her what he had planned, but finally said he wanted to take her to see the musical "Cats". She said, "I thought, oh geez, this is a real date."
Hirschkop said Todd planned the evening in recognition of Secretary Week and that the invitation did not constitute sexual harassment.
One morning, Kouri said Todd greeted her with a wide grin and handed her a little yellow piece of paper with his home phone number on it. She said she dialed the number and heard his voice on the taped message say: "To a very special young lady who means a great deal to me. Thank you for being the way you are. May our relationship continue to grow. Have a happy day, young lady."
"My eyes went wide and I said, 'Jim Todd, you go home and you take that off the phone machine right now,' " Kouri said.
Kouri said that a short time later, in early May, she had an anxiety attack while attending a computer training course. "I was just shaking, uncontrollable shaking," she said.
Kouri said she decided to go see James Maguire, deputy commissioner of Liberian Services. "His suggestion was, 'Why don't you have a talk with him and see if you can't handle it. If you can't handle it, then we'll see what else is to be done,' " Kouri said.
Kouri said she interpreted that to mean she would be fired. Maguire declined to answer any questions on the Kouri case, saying, "I'm not going to comment on any case under litigation."
Kouri said she confronted Todd after her meeting with Maguire.
"Look, you are going to have to stop walking me to my car every night, for starters. Your attentions toward me have to cease," Kouri said she warned him.
She said Todd told her he didn't want to do anything to hurt her.
In their filings with the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission, Liberian said that about two hours after Kouri had complained to a supervisory-level employee about Todd, Kouri "unilaterally withdrew this complaint ... and requested that it be forgotten."
Kouri denies that statement.
Kouri said she persuaded Todd to allow her to hire a college student to help her with filing and placed the student's desk in her office in an effort to avoid being alone with Todd.
In an affidavit, the student, Karie Gladstone, said she observed that Todd "was very protective of Karen and would not let her out of his sight, if possible. ... I saw Mr. Todd walk behind Karen while she was at her desk and place his face next to her cheek and talk to her. He was so close that if she moved she would have to touch his face."
When Todd presented Kouri's job evaluation to her on June 9, 1988, she was surprised to find a glowing report, including a recommendation for a raise. But Todd asked her whether she had a relationship with a male co-worker and warned that if so, she would not get the raise.
Kouri said she was stunned by Todd's accusation, which she said was false, and decided to quit.
The next day, she submitted a short letter of resignation. After leaving the office, Kouri said she went upstairs at home, locked the door, and then went into the master bathroom and locked that door. "I sat there on the floor and I cried like a little 2-year-old. The whole thing had just finally beaten me up, and I was just a basket case," she said.
Kouri filed a sexual harassment complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which transferred it to the Fairfax Human Rights Commission. In August 1988, Kouri offered to drop the complaint in return for a $13,608 settlement, a number she said was based on her salary and benefits for the six months she had worked at the company. She said her settlement offer was turned down. She was offered another position at the company but refused. She said that after the Fairfax Human Rights Commission, which lacks subpoena authority, was unable to bring all the parties together, she decided to file a lawsuit in federal court.
On June 6, the Fairfax Human Rights Commission ruled in Kouri's favor, recommending that she get a $2,600 settlement. Liberian then offered Kouri a settlement of $2,700, plus $4,000 for attorney's fees. James, her attorney, said that Kouri would not settle for that amount. He expects the case to go to trial this fall.
After leaving Liberian, Kouri said she briefly worked at British Aerospace Inc. as a clerk-typist, but she said she was very angry there. "The whole time I was there, I was not a happy camper. ... I had to leave this job that I really did like, that I thought I was very good at, to take this grunt job, and my hostilities were just eating me up inside," she said.
She quit and worked briefly for a temporary agency, but was also unhappy. Now she is trying to set up her own secretarial and word processing service out of her home.
"I will never go back into an office situation again," she said. "I just will not do it."