Almost 12 years before the Supreme Court assured her a place in the history books, Mechelle Vinson sat in her car in front of the Northeast Washington branch of what was then the Capital City Federal Savings bank. She was 19 years old, petite, pretty and ambitious. She was looking for a job.
*The job she got led to what she would later allege was a pattern of extreme sexual harassment. The lawyer who wrote the complaint -- which this year became the first such case ever heard by the Supreme Court -- described it as an "allegation of sexual slavery."
Outside the bank that day, Vinson was in familiar territory. She had grown up in Washington, attended Spingarn High School in Northeast before dropping out to get married. She'd since earned a high school equivalency degree and held several part-time jobs. Her parents, with whom she would shortly move in after separating from her husband, lived close by. Vinson had a savings account at the bank and knew the staff, including the bank manager, a man named Sidney L. Taylor. Taylor had been at the bank for more than a decade, had worked his way up from a janitor and messenger's job to branch manager and assistant vice president. He was a married man with seven children, a deacon in his church and a member of many civic organizations.
On that day, Vinson spotted Taylor leaving the bank and called him over to her car. She asked if there were any openings at the bank. Taylor gave her an application. "It was a very small branch," Vinson says, "and I've always loved people. So you get to know the only two tellers and the branch manager and that's how it was."
At least that's how Vinson says it was. Taylor's version is slightly different. "I used to go down the street to get me a milk or ginger ale," he says. "She honked her horn and beckoned me over and asked me if we had any openings. I had never seen her before in my life. I didn't know her . . . It could have been a customer calling me over for a question, so I went."
Taylor says he was always looking for qualified applicants and Vinson seemed to fit the bill. "She said she had cash handling experience . . . I said I need a teller and I will take this particular teller and do whatever I could . . . You've got to understand that we just didn't have people -- we had to take what we could find."
Vinson was hired as a teller trainee, and over the next three years received a steady series of raises and promotions, rising to assistant branch manager. In 1977 she left on indefinite sick leave and sued the bank and Taylor.
The Supreme Court's unanimous decision in the Vinson case earlier this summer substantially broadened the definition of sexual harassment, by holding that sexual harassment is a violation of federal antidiscrimination laws and that companies may be liable for the misbehavior of one employe. But at the same time the court ruled on the law, it sent Vinson's case back to a lower court for retrial.
At the first trial of her case in 1980, Vinson lost. The U.S. District judge ruled that Vinson had suffered no job discrimination. He did not resolve conflicting testimony about whether there had been a relationship between Taylor and Vinson, but said if there was one it was voluntary.
The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the decision, however, ruling that a woman did not have to show evidence of job discrimination to prove that she'd been sexually harassed. The bank appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.
Vinson was hired the day after she filled out an application. She had a brief interview at the bank's main office during which, she testified, a bank official told her, "Mr. Taylor, he usually has fine taste in women." She says she does not remember taking offense at the comment, or finding it strange. "I was perhaps so happy to get the job, and my husband and I had just gotten back together, so if anything -- any slurs -- were said, I just didn't pay attention to them."
Her application to the bank shows she had worked briefly at an exercise club, a food store and a shoe store. "I sold stocking and Pockie Books . . . and I was a cashier." In answer to a question about other "experiences, skills or qualifications which you feel would especially fit you for work with the Company" she wrote: "I have always worked with money and people. I had experience working with typewriter's, cashier's, xerox machines and filing."
"She was always a go-getter," says Vinson's older sister. "She would go out and get a job. She had her head screwed on straight."
Vinson says her childhood was unhappy, and that she had a troubled relationship with her father, who worked for the D.C. department of sanitation. She had been a chronic runaway, and at one point her mother went to court in an effort to have her placed in a foster home. During this time she says she had stress-related physical problems such as hair loss and an inability to swallow and was seen by a court-appointed psychiatrist. She was desperate to get out of her house and when a friend of the family, much older, proposed marriage, she agreed.
She says she was "14 or 15" and became pregnant in order to be married while underage. "I thought if I get married, I don't have to go through problems with my father." Her future husband's only concern, she says, "was he wanted to help me, and to get pregnant, and he would marry me." She says she lost the baby during pregnancy after a fight with her husband.
Vinson says that for the first few months at the bank, while she was classified as a teller trainee, Taylor gave her books to read on banking, and encouraged her to come to him for advice with personal and professional problems. She did, she says, and told Taylor about her difficulties with her father and her husband, from whom she was in the process of separating.
"When you see him, he tries to put on an air that he cares, when he talks to people, like he's here to help you," Vinson says now. "Once he finds out your weaknesses in your life, he uses it to his benefit . . . He knew my life, he knew that I was raised in violence, he knew my husband was violent. He wasn't a stupid man."
Vinson says that when she told Taylor that she was moving into her own apartment, he was solicitous. When she told him that she was $120 short for the initial rent deposit, she says, he gave her the money and told her not to worry about paying it back. She also says Taylor paid her for overtime she hadn't worked.
"The first time I got additional overtime on my check I went to him and said something's wrong . . . and he said, 'Well, I gave that to you because you worked so hard . . . This is my way of showing that you worked hard and you don't make that much money.' I had always gone to him because he stated if you have a problem you can always come to me."
Taylor's version of this is that Vinson sometimes requested and received routine salary advances and that he treated Vinson no different than the other employes. "Number one, I'm a father of seven children. I don't need another one. My job is to try and find out what your problems are, if you're making mistakes. As far as treating her in a fatherly image, that's out . . . That's neither here nor there with me, and if it were a problem there and she shared that problem with me, it's not because I asked for it."
Two weeks after Vinson moved into her own apartment, several months after she'd begun working at the bank, Vinson says Taylor offered to take her out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant on Bladensburg Road. Vinson says Taylor had treated her respectfully and she had no reason to think that he had anything different in mind that particular night.
After dinner, Vinson says, Taylor asked her to have sex with him. "He said, 'I have been better to you, more than your husband.' I said, 'Well, Mr. Taylor, I appreciate that.' And he says, 'I don't want appreciation, I want to go to bed with you.' I said, 'I don't want to go to bed with you.' . . . And he says, 'Just like I hired you, I'll fire you, just like I made you, I'll break you, and if you don't do what I say then I'll have you killed.' . . . And that's how it started."
Vinson says the restaurant had a motel attached, and once dinner was over Taylor drove to the motel office. While she waited in the car, she says, Taylor registered. She says she later returned with her lawyer to find the record of their entry, but could not, and believes that Taylor registered under an assumed name.
Once in the room, Vinson says, Taylor told her to take her clothes off while he showered. When he emerged from the shower, Vinson says:
"I couldn't move. I just stood in the same place . . . I didn't know what to do. This is a man that I believed in. All the while he was nice to me, he was saying he was going to help me. I just felt sick, like, you know, why is this happening to me? . . . And he kept saying to me I was a big girl now and he wasn't going to hurt me, and to take my clothes off. I just stood there. I didn't do anything. I was stiff like a board, almost like I was dead. Tears were running down my face. He wasn't saying anything. He just did what he wanted to do. He took my clothes off, he lay me down and that was it.
"After he finished he took me back to the bank, or to my apartment, I can't remember." She hoped, she said, that having complied with Taylor, that would be the end of it. "But the Monday when I came into work, that's when he started feeling me all over . . . Oh, God."
Vinson testified that she was paralyzed by her fear of losing her job. "He told me this is what I had to do; I owed him . . . So that was going on in my head. This man would fire me, my God. I need my job. I just moved to this apartment. That was on my mind."
Vinson says she had no one she could tell about her troubles. "I guess I kept hoping it would stop. And there were points and periods where it did stop and then it would start back up again. When it first started, it really was like it was in a dream, like it really wasn't happening . . . The first year I was in shock. I couldn't believe it was happening to me. You deny it. It wasn't that I felt I could live with it. It is devastating. There's times you can't eat, times you can't sleep, you can't even totally think. The only thing that you think about is day-to-day survival. 'What am I going to have to deal with?' or 'How am I going to protect myself?' "
*Taylor says he never took Vinson to dinner, and certainly never approached her sexually. Vinson says that he approached her many times over the next three years.
"The only times I can remember in my head are the most intense type things. Like when he knocked me down in the vault and forced himself on me," she says. "Or times when . . . we would have problems with the air conditioning and he would say, 'Mechelle, go downstairs and check the air conditioning, and I would go, and he would come down, grab me . . . It was just something like, you're an animal, you're nothing, and I'm going to show you you're nothing."
Vinsontestified that Taylor threatened her life to keep her from telling anyone what was happening at the bank. She took his threats seriously, she said, because he had threatened another employe of the bank, Christine Malone. Malone claimed to have been raped by an unknown assailant one week after Taylor's alleged threat.
There was no evidence introduced at trial that Taylor or anyone else connected with the bank had anything to do with the alleged assault on Malone. Taylor has denied all of these allegations.
Taylor says sex in the bank vault would have been impossible if for no other reason than the vault (a secondary storage vault, not the one used for keeping money) was too small. "If I had sex with her in the vault, where did we do that? On the floor? I wear $250 suits and I am not getting on the floor."
"Oh!" Vinson says. "Mr. Taylor had about three or four suits that he wore. A blue suit, a green suit and a brown suit. Those were the only suits he ever wore and they . . . looked as if they came from Sears. And it did not matter what he had on for him to do whatever he wanted to do. He would go up to the go-go place, and drink his beer and come back and read his magazines, his 'Deep Throats' or his 'Hustlers,' and he would go crazy, pushing on you, saying vulgar things, becoming very overbearing." Vinson has testified that up until Taylor's overtures at the restaurant, she'd had no warning that he had anything but friendship in mind. "I had lived a very isolated life," she says. "It was a certain way with my father, and my husband was the only man I had known in any form, and as far as knowing any other man and any other individual's behavior, people outside, I wasn't in the outside world, I only worked, went to school, was a housewife. So I didn't know the manipulation of other people's behaviors.
"I did not know. I took him at face value. I trusted him. It wasn't something I was used to. I was used to abuse, but not used to manipulation as to how people use people today in the world. So I did not see, and I did not know."
At trial, however, Malone testified that Taylor had begun harassing both of them months before the time that Vinson alleges Taylor asked her to dinner. Malone said she once saw Taylor enter the restroom while Vinson was in there, and heard Taylor tell Vinson: "Come on out of here. Come and get this. Come and get this -- You want it."
Patricia Barry, Vinson's attorney, explains the discrepancy by saying that Malone became confused about time references under cross-examination. "I'm not saying they disagreed. If there is any internal inconsistency, my contention is that it's because of the harassing tactics and opposing counsel created confusion rather than ferreting out the truth."
Malone testified that Taylor harassed her constantly. "He would put his hands on my breasts and he would put his hands on my backside and it was just disrespectful. That just tore me down. I couldn't stand it," Malone testified. " . . . He wanted to have sex. He wanted to -- he would almost make a statement, Mr. Taylor, that we were his women and what he wanted us to do."
MaryLevarity, another woman who briefly worked at the bank before resigning over a discrepancy over accounting, testified that Taylor had harassed her as well. In a pretrial deposition she stated that Taylor badgered her and used vulgar language to pester her about having sex with him. In the presence of other employes, including Vinson, Levarity said Taylor would tell her "four or five times a day, whenever he got a chance, 'Mary, you're going to have to pay up.' "
Vinson said that Taylor stopped bothering her in 1977, after she began an affair with another bank employe. That man later moved in with her, and Vinson testified that he told her he was a bisexual and that he had had a brief sexual encounter with Taylor after a beer-drinking contest at the office. Taylor and the man deny the allegation vehemently.
"Jesus Christ, now she's charged me with being a homosexual!" Taylor said. "I have never had sex with him and I'm sure . . . he will tell you the same thing."
When interviewed by The Washington Post, the other man, who declined to be named, said Vinson and the two women who testified on her behalf were "totally lying. The whole thing is premeditated. It's a distorted operation that she is making up to make money.
"They're not little innocent girls. They are streetwise," the man said. "I know the people they hang out with. I know that she's a very flirtatious person. I lived with her for two years. That's how she gets her jobs. It's not sexual harassment. It's premeditated. These are just totally malicious lies. It's just not fair for Mr. Taylor to go through this."
At the trial Taylor and the bank disputed Vinson's, Malone's and Levarity's claims and said that Malone and Levarity were fired or resigned over repeated accounting errors. Malone testified that she was discharged because she refused to have sex with Taylor, and says she left the bank when she couldn't stand the harassment any more.
Taylor says: "I'm a married man. I have four women in my life. My three daughters and my wife."
About the pornographic magazines, Taylor says he kept some magazines in his desk drawer, because he liked the writing, and that he never displayed them to other employes.
About the visits to the go-go club: "The go-go club is a customer of mine. I go down there now and then to pick up this man's deposit . . . There again, even if I went to the go-go place down the street, my job is to mingle with the public, and if it's the go-go place, all well and good, and if it's a church I'll go there too."
In 1978, almost nine years before Justice William Rehnquist wrote the Supreme Court decision that women's rights groups would laud for greatly expanding the protection of the rights of working women, Mechelle Vinson left work at the bank and headed across town to the office of a Georgetown lawyer. She had made the appointment to discuss a divorce from her husband. She sat down in the office, but then, to her own surprise and that of the lawyer, she began to weep.
"She wasn't hysterical," the lawyer, Judy N. Ludwic, says, "it was like it came from deep inside. The tears were just rolling down her face."
Ludwic asked if Vinson had changed her mind about the divorce.
Vinson shook her head, and then she began to talk. "Something just snapped," Vinson says now. "The lawyer asked me, 'Do you realize you have a case?' " In a series of meetings over the next few weeks, Vinson began to catalogue the sexual harassment that she alleged took place.
"She was very traumatized," the lawyer remembers. "She was very embarrassed. This was someone she had very much looked up to."
Ludwic referred Vinson to another lawyer, who filed a complaint. By both their accounts, Vinson called Taylor and said she was leaving on indefinite sick leave. In November of that year, Vinson wrote a letter to bank officials informing them that she was leaving the bank "due to the level of harassment and the unprofessional atmosphere that exists in my direction." A few days later, according to attorney John Marshall Meisburg Jr., the attorney who first filed Vinson's complaint, the bank wrote her to say she was fired.
Mechelle Vinson now works part time as a temporary, and as an assistant at a holistic health clinic in Southwest Washington. She has enrolled in nursing school. "When you go into a sick person's room, and you can make them smile or you can do something to make them feel good, that's satisfaction. And in the banking field you have some people who will perhaps come up to the window and say, 'Well, my grandmother died,' and the only thing you can do is be sympathetic. You can't really give them that inner love that is necessary."
Taylor, who has kept his job, says he feels it unjust somehow that he should have to return to court to defend himself all over again, but that he will go if it takes that to prove his innocence. "I hope that the truth will eventually come out," Taylor says. "I wouldn't want anyone else to suffer like this. I pray that no male or female will ever have to go through the agony that I went through on an allegation that wasn't true . . . I hope it will never happen to anyone on lies, deceit, envy, greed."
Mechelle Vinson says she is equally sanguine. "I had no motive to have revenge on Mr. Taylor . . . Regardless of what people say, I know the truth, he knows the truth . . . But he has to live with his conscience and I with mine. And I don't feel ashamed, I don't feel that I shouldn't have stood up for my rights, because I feel that I am being me now. Before I was a lie. I wasn't myself. I was living in someone else's world, but not a real world. So now I am living in the world as it is. And I'm standing up for what I believe in . . . that I am a human being, regardless to my color, to my sex, regardless to how one individual may look at me. I have a purpose to be in life here, just as you or anyone else."