A federal judge has ruled that a Reston woman was not being sexually harassed when her boss gave her cards and gifts, rubbed her back and hands, and regularly escorted her to the bathroom and her car.

Judge James C. Cacheris ruled in federal court in Alexandria last week that the attention given Karen Kouri by her boss, James N. Todd, at a division of Arlington-based USLICO Corp., was "not unwelcome" and that Todd's actions did not violate the definitions of sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Cacheris said that there was no evidence Todd had directly asked Kouri for sex; that Kouri had not explicitly asked him to stop paying close attention to her; that Kouri was sending out "mixed signals"; and that the attention Todd paid to the woman did not create an uncomfortable working environment.

"Put simply, Todd's conduct would not have interfered with a reasonable person's work performance or created an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment that would have seriously affected a reasonable person's psychological well-being," Cacheris ruled. "It plainly did not rise to that level."

However, experts in sexual harassment law said yesterday that the decision appears to contradict a trend toward broadening the definition of a "hostile or abusive" environment, in which female employees are made uncomfortable by actions of male supervisors or co-workers that do not include direct sexual overtures. In at least two recent cases, courts have found that a woman might look at such an environment in a way different than a man might see it.

"If the judge thought of this as trivial, he has been not exposed to real life lately," said Judith Vladeck, a New York attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases. "The attention, if it is unwelcome, can create an environment that is uncomfortable or worse than that."

"The trend that we see emerging from these cases is that more and more of the courts are viewing sexual harassment from the eyes of a reasonable woman, not just of a reasonable person," said Victor Schachter, a San Francisco attorney who represents companies in sexual harassment cases.

Neither Vladeck nor Schachter is directly familiar with the Kouri case, but spoke of general trends in sexual harassment law.

Todd, who was dropped as a defendant from the case against the company before it went to trial, was not available for comment. But Judith Judkins, an attorney for USLICO, an insurance company, said, "What {Kouri} presented was inconsistent to show any kind of sexual harassment. ... A lot of this stuff was in her mind."

Kouri's attorney, Jesse James Jr., said he was disappointed in the outcome of the case, which was heard in November in federal district court in Alexandria. "It is a bad decision for women in Virginia," he said. "The essence of the decision is that the judge simply doesn't think the conduct was egregious enough."

And Kouri said, "He found the man guilty of everything I accused him of, but there's nothing wrong with" it. She said she plans to appeal.

The Fairfax Human Rights Commission ruled last June that Kouri had been harassed and ordered that the company pay her $2,600.

Judge Cacheris said he found that Todd had paid "extremely close attention" to Kouri after she joined Liberian Services Inc., a USLICO division, as Todd's secretary in 1987.

In addition to giving her gifts and cards, the judge said, Todd "embarked upon a protective policy of minimizing her contact with other LSI employees. He insisted that he personally escort her to the bathroom" and walked Kouri to her car at night "despite the lack of need for any particular safety precautions."

Twice, when Kouri became ill at the office, Todd insisted on driving her home, at one point arguing with another employee about who should take Kouri home.

"Both times, after arriving at the house, Todd ignored {Kouri's} requests to leave her at the front door and, instead, walked her all the way into her bedroom," the judge wrote. "Then, he parked himself on the bed beside her and massaged her hands (although she politely asked him not to) until her husband arrived."

However, the judge ruled, such conduct did not constitute unwanted attention and sexual harassment. The judge noted that Todd, who was recently divorced, and Kouri, who was having family problems, often discussed personal matters. Much of the behavior may have stemmed from that friendship, the judge said. "The harassment in this case was not unwelcome," the judge said.

"Kouri did not once make a serious demand on Todd to stop paying such close attention to her," the judge ruled. "She indicated that she continually asked him not to touch her and that she attempted to avoid his hugs, yet it seems certain that her requests were not delivered with any sense of urgency, sincerity or force. In essence, she was sending out mixed signals."

But James said, "What was she supposed to do, punch him in the face? ... She has done everything that she could."

Cacheris rejected Kouri's contention that Todd threatened to withhold a raise and promotion from her unless she broke off a friendship with a co-worker of whom Todd apparently was jealous.

The judge also ruled that Kouri had not sufficiently complained to officials at USLICO about Todd's actions -- something Kouri said she was afraid to do because she feared losing her job.

Cacheris ruled that when the company did become aware that there was a problem between Kouri and Todd, it offered her a transfer to what the judge said appeared to be a better job at the same pay. Kouri turned down the transfer; James said the job was not an improvement over her previous post.

Kouri, suffering from depression and stress she said was caused by Todd's actions -- but which the judge said may have been due to other personal problems -- left USLICO in mid-1988 and, after working briefly at other jobs, is unemployed.