A $2 discount only for women on a sandwich at a Montgomery County delicatessen has escalated into a two-year legal brouhaha over sexual discrimination with an estimated price tag of $50,000.
Last June, the Montgomery County Human Rights Commission found that Silver Spring Woodside Deli owner Gus Haris had discriminated against Rockville engineer Richard J. Peppin by offering "Ladies' Night" discounts on food and drink for women. The commission ordered Haris to stop the promotion.
Yesterday, Peppin's lawyer and Haris' lawyer confronted each other again, this time before Circuit Court Judge Calvin Sanders. Peppin is appealing the commission's refusal to award him $1,000 for "embarrassment and humiliation" he alleges he suffered, for what his lawyer called a "misleading and inadequate" sign announcing the offense, and, especially, for the commission's refusal to order Haris to pay Peppin's costs and attorney's fees.
In a separate action before the state Court of Special Appeals, Peppin also is appealing a decision made last January by Circuit Court Judge William Cave that although Ladies' Night was discriminatory, a second promotional gimmick Haris started in its wake -- "Skirt and Gown Night" -- was not. In that promotion, Haris offered half-price entrees and side dishes to patrons of either sex who dressed in skirts or gowns.
Peppin's lawyer, Jana Singer of Georgetown University's Sex Discrimination Clinic, said it was impossible to put a dollar figure yesterday on the cost of having the center's three lawyers work on the case for more than two years. In filings before the commission a year ago, Peppin's lawyers had asked that Haris be held liable for $18,188 in legal fees.
Haris' attorney, Steven R. Buckner, said Singer had offered a $35,000 figure during recent and unsuccessful settlement discussions. And Haris said he's already paid Buckner $12,000 in fees, discounting the cost of the Circuit Court appeal, which could run several thousand dollars more.
Peppin could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Haris had plenty to say.
"The discrimination laws in the county have been trivialized in the process," he said. " . . . I have no legal recourse to recover my costs even if I win."
But Singer maintains that it is not Peppin who has trivialized the county's discrimination laws. "We think failure to award any effective relief . . . rewards defendents for violating the law rather than compensating the victim," Singer said. She added that victims who win civil rights cases traditionally have had their costs reimbursed, and she worries that the commission's decision might pave the way for just the opposite precedent.
Sanders is expected to make a decision within two months.