The world was changing in 1990, as East German troops bulldozed the Berlin Wall and computer scientists unleashed a novel information-sharing system called the World Wide Web.
But Deborah Jean Bryant remembers that time for a more personal reason: It was then that she filed a sexual discrimination complaint against the District of Columbia that has been litigated for the past 27 years. The length may set a record for the court system in the nation’s capital and is likely among the most protracted in the history of American jurisprudence.
Bryant, a 59-year-old who once worked in a typing pool for the District’s Department of Corrections, accused her former supervisor of denying her a promotion because she rebuffed his advances. In 1992, the director of the city’s now-defunct Department of Human Rights and Minority Business Development ruled in her favor.
What followed was not vindication but a dispute over the precise amount of money Bryant is owed — now including almost three decades of interest — that still has no end in sight.
“This scarecrow of a suit has, over the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means,” Charles Dickens wrote of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the fictional lawsuit at the center of “Bleak House.” But the Jarndyce family had nothing on Bryant. Dickens said he took inspiration for his novel from a case that lasted a paltry 20 years.
Bryant’s case has been heard by nine judges and this week is scheduled to go before a 10th. Her attorney — Robert Adler, who has represented her since she walked into his downtown Washington office for their first appointment in 1990 — said her case is “undoubtedly” the oldest in the District and perhaps the country.
“It does sound like — pardon my French — a s--- show. It is exceptional, it is extraordinary, in its length,” said J.H. “Rip” Verkerke, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. “Civil litigation will often take five or even 10 years to resolve, but anything stretching into two decades starts to qualify as a kind of legendary delay.”
A spokesman for the D.C. Attorney General’s Office, which represents the city in the case, declined to comment because the case is pending.
The pleadings in Deborah Jean Bryant v. D.C. Department of Corrections, which over the years has migrated from typewriters to computers, outline a fight that has continued as the Soviet Union collapsed, five presidents entered or left the White House, and the prison where Bryant once typed up parole reports was transformed into a luxury apartment complex.
Through that time, Bryant — a soft-spoken and slightly acerbic grandmother of five — said she has persevered for a simple reason: She’s right.
“I’m the type of person that if you’re wrong, I’ll tell you you’re wrong,” she said during a recent interview. “I’m still fighting because I was wronged.”
Built in 1910, the Lorton Reformatory’s porticoed brick walls hid a ghoulish warren of cells that became notorious after the detention and torture of women’s suffrage activists in 1917.
But for Bryant — a Marine’s daughter with a degree from Quantico High School who went to work in a typing pool at the prison in the 1980s — it represented a secure future with a chance to rise through the ranks of District bureaucracy and retire with a comfortable pension.
In 1987, she became a secretary for John Lattimore, a senior prison administrator who liked to socialize with his employees. Bryant said she initially enjoyed attending concerts by the O’Jays and Marvin Gaye with groups of her co-workers, including her new boss, but their relationship soon took an uncomfortable turn.
Bryant later said in a sworn affidavit that Lattimore repeatedly asked her out, told her she had “a nice derrière” and remarked in front of another prison worker that “Deborah could have anything she wants if she does the right thing.”
She also testified that Lattimore repeatedly told her he was “in love” and said that she “should sit in his lap so that he could play Santa Claus,” according to case records.
Lattimore, now retired, declined to comment. “You can deal with the Department of Corrections. I ain’t got nothing to say,” he said, standing in the doorway of his home on a quiet street of shade trees and rolling front lawns in District Heights, Md.
A department spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Bryant said she did not immediately complain because of pervasive sexism at the corrections department, which in the late 1990s settled a class-action lawsuit alleging widespread sexual harassment of female workers.
She said she was also worried that Lattimore could block her from better jobs.
“All I cared about was getting my promotion,” she said.
Her silence did little good.
In the fall of 1988, city investigators later found, Bryant was demoted to work as a typist in a cell block, where she was responsible for helping inmates write up their complaints.
Commuting to work from the home she shared with her two daughters in Spotsylvania, Va., Bryant found herself in tears as she approached the prison in her old Mazda 626. “It just got to the point that I couldn’t function there no more,” she said.
In late 1989, she checked herself into the psychiatric ward at Mary Washington Hospital, where she was diagnosed with major depression. She would not return to work full time for two years.
When Adler first met Bryant, he thought she had an open-and-shut case against the District’s government. At first, it seemed he might be right.
District human rights director Margie A. Utley found in September 1992 that Bryant had been denied advancement because of sexual discrimination and ordered corrections officials to promote her and pay her back wages for what should have been a better job.
But the corrections department appealed the decision, and for the next 11 years, Bryant and Adler battled the city over the merits of Utley’s ruling. Another nine years passed in a dispute over whether she was entitled to interest on her still-unpaid back wages from the 1980s and early 1990s.
In 2012, a D.C. Court of Appeals panel found that Bryant was entitled to the interest, stating that she had “endured a particularly long and procedurally complicated ordeal.”
The department then wrote her a check — for $100,480, $52,000 less than it previously said she was owed in back wages.
Corrections officials said they had revisited their records and discovered that their earlier math had been wrong and had included pay for hours Bryant had not worked.
Including interest, the total payment came to $150,000, some $50,000 of which went to Adler’s law firm. For the past five years, Bryant and Adler have been struggling to claim the final $52,000 they say she is owed, plus interest.
A third of that would pay Adler’s fees.
The case is pending before a D.C. administrative law judge, with no indication that it is any closer to being resolved than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
Adler, who was 47 when Bryant filed her complaint, is now a genteel, silver-haired 73-year-old.
He estimates that he has done $600,000 of work on her case, most of which he will never be paid.
The legal twilight that has engulfed his client for a quarter-century is largely a result of the snail’s pace at which the D.C. legal system proceeds, he said.
“This is not a hard case. It’s really pretty easy,” said Adler, who works in the D.C. office of the law firm Nossaman LLP. “These people just don’t work that hard. That’s what the fact of the matter is.”
Jonathan Turley, a lawyer and professor at the George Washington University Law School, said the District’s courts have long been criticized for their slow pace.
The delays can be particularly severe in government workplace cases, such as Bryant’s, where a mix of administrative and Superior Court judges weigh in at different stages.
“Each one of these case transfers has built into it months, even years, of delay,” he said. “A litigant can find themselves ping-ponging between the court and the administrative office.”
Turley — who represented people who sued the District over mass arrests at a 2002 anti-World Bank demonstration, a case that took almost 14 years to resolve — said such delays work to the advantage of defendants, particularly governments, which have the time and resources to wear down plaintiffs by attrition.
“Litigation is a lot like dying by exposure,” Turley said.
Bryant’s brother, Gary Graves, said she has not been immune to the effects of her long court ordeal and the bout of harassment that preceded it. “She’s not as outgoing as she used to be,” he said. “It took a big toll on her.”
But he said he does not fault her for refusing to walk away. “She feels she’s owed something,” he said.
Bryant, who was laid off after the federal government took over the District’s prisons in the late 1990s and closed down Lorton, now works as a security guard. She said she has no plans to relent: The additional money she is owed would help pay the mortgage on her three-bedroom home and put her closer to a secure retirement, she said.
But after watching generations of government lawyers dig in against her and Adler, she said she sometimes wonders whether the fight is one they can win.
“It seems like they’re waiting for one of us to drop dead,” she said.