WASHINGTON — The Flexible Packaging Association has won what could be a final victory in its long-running court battle against charges that its former president sexually harassed employees.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Washington decided Jan. 11 that a lower court was correct to toss out a jury verdict against the Washington-based association and its former president, Glenn Braswell.
A jury had awarded almost $1 million in 1996 to former FPA employee Gaye Lively, who accused Braswell of making demeaning comments to women, creating a hostile work atmosphere and retaliating against those who complained.
But the trial judge tossed out some of the claims, of unequal pay and retaliation, for lack of evidence.
That judge ruled that while there was indeed enough evidence to support the jury's verdict on other claims, such as that Braswell created a hostile work environment, the statute of limitations had expired by the time the suit was filed.
"We were pleased with the outcome," said FPA's current president, Marla Donahue. "It took a long time to get there, but it's the right one. Justice prevailed. It's unfortunate it dragged on as long as it did."
Lively's lawyer, Lawrence Eiser, has appealed, asking the entire nine judges of the D.C. Appeals Court to hear the case. A three-judge panel handed down the Jan. 11 decision in a 2-1 vote.
The majority opinion, from Justices James Belson and Eric Washington, agreed with a lower court ruling that Lively did not file her complaint soon enough and presented no evidence of harassment that happened within a year of her December 1993 suit, as the statute of limitations requires.
The court said Lively, who started work at FPA in 1980, hired a lawyer in 1989 to deal with problems with Braswell and consequently should have been aware of the time limitations.
The court said employment discrimination cases must be brought quickly because such claims get stale.
While the court said the case should be tossed out, its majority opinion was full of unflattering testimony about working conditions inside FPA at the time:
In October 1992, with at least 19 FPA members present, Braswell "jokingly suggested that Mrs. Lively was having sexual relations with a board member."
Lively testified that Braswell "frequently referred to women as bimbos, hookers, old maids and dykes, and made derogatory references to women's bodies," and three other female employees testified they were subjected to "sexually offensive comments on a regular basis."
The FPA board's personnel committee issued a warning to Braswell in 1989, and its chairman wrote in an internal FPA document that Braswell was a "chauvinist" with a "tendency to demean women and their abilities."
Braswell left FPA in 1999. He could not be reached.
The court's dissenting opinion came from Judge Inez Reid, who said the court should not have overturned the jury's judgment. Reid said the other judges have too narrow a definition of a hostile workplace, and she said there is enough evidence to support claims that Braswell retaliated against employees who complained.
Reid wrote that the jury felt that Lively did present some evidence of Braswell's behavior that happened less than a year before her suit, and the court should abide by that.
But the majority said evidence in that time period — a poor evaluation of Lively by Braswell and a comment from Braswell that an employee was one of the "dumbest girls" he had met — did not rise to an appropriate level.