The worst of the lewd behavior occurred in the summer of 1996, according to Brenda Lynn Franklin, then the only woman on the sales staff of the King Lincoln-Mercury-Suzuki car dealership in Gaithersburg.
Several of her male colleagues compared the size of their penises right on the showroom floor, Franklin said earlier this week, recalling how the eventual "winner" of the competition had come running into her office that day.
"He says, 'Give me a ruler, give me a ruler!' and he was zipping down his pants," said Franklin, of Silver Spring, who makes these claims in a $4 million sexual discrimination lawsuit scheduled to go to trial today in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.
Attorneys for the dealership vigorously deny that any of the alleged harassing behavior occurred and say that the salesmen actually had gotten the ruler out to settle a debate about the length of the Mercury Villager minivan.
"This is a well-run, highly professional company," said Kevin C. McCormick, a Baltimore lawyer representing King. The charges Franklin makes in her 1998 lawsuit are "an allegation that to date there is absolutely no evidence to support," McCormick said last week.
The alleged hostile environment in the showroom, and the company's failure to do anything about it after Franklin complained repeatedly to her supervisors, violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, according to Franklin's eight-page complaint.
The suit charges that Franklin was subjected to discrimination and harassment during the time she worked at King, from June to September 1996, and asks for $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The complaint also asks for $2 million for back pay and emotional pain and suffering.
"I was the joke, because I was the only female," Franklin said. "It was the most inhumane thing I have ever experienced in my life."
Allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace were made earlier this year against another Gaithersburg employer, Federal Express Corp., and one of the managers of its branch office there. A $17 million sexual harassment lawsuit filed in July by five female employees charged that the manager threatened them, stalked them and sexually assaulted them.
Franklin, 47, says she believes the salesmen's behavior was driven in part by jealousy over the fact that she was doing well, having made 15 sales in her first month on the job--her first position at a car dealership or even in sales.
Several of the salesmen participated in the offensive behavior, with one of them making "grinding motions" toward her when they crossed paths in the showroom, she said. In another instance, Franklin said, she had been talking about having lost weight and how she hoped to get a firmer chin, and a sales colleague told her, "I know how women do it in my country." He then tried to instruct her, she claims, in a sexually suggestive way, in how to eat a banana.
According to the complaint, one salesman, Ali Mohammed, was especially aggressive toward Franklin, whispering "M and M" to her whenever she walked by, explaining eventually that the letters stood for "mental masturbation."
Mohammed, who no longer works at King, declined last week to comment about Franklin's allegations.
Once, Franklin recalled, when Mohammed thought she was approaching one of his customers, he balled up his fists and threatened "to chew me up and spit me out." On another occasion, Mohammed made a crude sexual proposition to Franklin, illustrating it by grabbing his genitals through his pants and waving them in front of her, the suit alleges.
In the case of the alleged showroom measuring contest, Franklin said she averted her eyes after Mohammed came in, asking for the ruler. But she said the contest was described to her by a senior salesman, Jack Peck, who was training her. Peck, who no longer works at King, declined last week to comment.
On another day, angry about a female customer who did not buy a car after long negotiations, Mohammed drew an obscene picture on a photocopy of the woman's driver's license and handed it to Franklin, the suit alleges.
Franklin said that this incident was one of many either witnessed by supervisors or reported to them, but that no action was taken to reprimand the salesmen. McCormick contends that the incident is one of several times the company did investigate Franklin's complaints and found them baseless.
"A half-hour after the incident supposedly occurred, she was unable to produce this piece of paper. Where did it go?" McCormick said, noting that Franklin had just had a "violent argument" with Mohammed about a customer. McCormick suggested that Franklin was having personality clashes with the staff and fabricated the charges out of spite.
Not so, says Franklin, who says the supervisor she showed the paper to told her to rip it up.
Franklin said she left the dealership because "I couldn't take it anymore" and was becoming depressed and demoralized by the situation. McCormick said Franklin left not because she felt harassed but because she did not like a new compensation plan to determine how sales staff would be paid. Franklin said that about two weeks after leaving King, she took a job in another area car dealership, which she held for about a year. She is now unemployed.
Franklin filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July 1997, received a notice of her right to sue in June 1998 and filed the suit in September 1998.
This past summer, U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. denied the dealership's motion for summary judgment against Franklin. He chastised King's attorneys for bringing up information "in a somewhat derisive manner" about Franklin's personal background that "is totally irrelevant."
CAPTION: Brenda Lynn Franklin, who says she was subjected to lewd behavior by salesmen at the Gaithersburg dealership, seeks $4 million in damages.