Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Calvin Sanders, in a sternly worded opinion, has refused a Rockville man's appeal for thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees and damages stemming from his sexual discrimination complaint against a Silver Spring delicatessen.
Sanders upheld the county Human Relations Commission's denial of compensation to engineer Richard J. Peppin, who had complained that Woodside Deli owner Gus Haris discriminated against him by offering women "Ladies' Night" discounts on food and drinks.
In June 1984, the commission ordered Haris to stop the promotion, but it denied Peppin's request that Haris be ordered to pay more than $18,000 to Peppin's lawyers, students and staff members at the Georgetown University law school's sex discrimination clinic. The commission also refused to award Peppin $1,000 -- the maximum amount allowed under the county's sex bias law -- for the "embarrassment and humiliation" he alleges he suffered on Feb. 10, 1983, when his female companion received a $2 discount on her pastrami sandwich at the delicatessen.
Sanders, in a July 3 decision, upheld the commission's denial of compensation to Peppin and the clinic. "The 'Ladies' Night' promotion . . . has been broadcast throughout the community out of proportion to its significance as reflecting the policy of the citizens of Montgomery County relating to sex-based discrimination," Sanders wrote.
Sanders noted that the sex discrimination clinic agreed to charge Peppin for legal work only if the commission or courts ordered Haris to pick up the tab. He found that the clinic spent too much time -- 332 hours, 27 of which were spent preparing the petition for the attorney's fees -- on a case that was "neither complex nor so difficult."
Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the National Capital Area American Civil Liberties Union, said Sanders' decision may discourage people from filing sexual discrimination and other civil rights complaints. Federal and state courts traditionally have ordered people who have been found guilty of sexual discrimination and other civil rights violations to reimburse the victim's court and lawyer costs, he said.
"Without the availability of attorneys' fees, ordinary people who aren't wealthy won't be able to bring this kind of complaint," Spitzer said, adding that Sanders should have reduced Peppin's $18,000 request and then should have ordered Haris to pay it.
"To require that Haris assume responsibility for the payment of such excessive fees under the circumstances of this case would result in his bearing the costs of the legal education of the students who participated," Sanders wrote, adding that it would "promote frivolous" lawsuits and discourage reasonable settlements.
Peppin was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Susan Ross, director of the sex discrimination clinic, refused to comment on the case.
"This one guy who came in ended up costing me more than $13,000" in attorney's fees, Haris said in a telephone interview yesterday. "If they continue to harass me in terms of appeals where I have to continuously employ a lawyer, I might file an abuse-of-process suit. They ought to stop now."
But the saga of the Woodside Deli is not over. In a separate action before the state Court of Special Appeals, Peppin is appealing a decision made last January by Circuit Court Judge William Cave, who found that although Ladies' Night was discriminatory, a 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.