WASHINGTON – The harassment was bad enough, but Lisa Bryan said that was only the beginning of her problems.
Bryan was an account manager in 1999 when she said a supervisor showed her his underwear and told her he woke his wife up one night calling Bryan’s name. He would wave a bottle in front of her after telling her he had relieved himself in a bottle during a long phone conversation.
After she complained to her company, she said, she was retaliated against.
“After the report, I was always walking on eggshells,” said Bryan, who eventually quit her job, leaving her in debt and without pension benefits. She went to court, but a judge ruled against her in March, saying there was no evidence of retaliation.
Bryan is one of more than 4,500 workers in Maryland who complained of job discrimination since 2000, the vast majority of whom have seen their cases dismissed.
Experts familiar with the process say there are several reasons why so many cases are rejected: the ease of filing a complaint induces workers to press frivolous cases; those workers who do have a case often are not able to collect sufficient evidence; and businesses are becoming more adept at skirting the law.
“A lot goes unreported,” because of those hurdles, said David Grinberg, a spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Maryland.
An analysis by Capital News Service of EEOC cases in the state showed that the agency closed most of the cases that were filed from 2000 to 2003, saying it could find no reasonable cause after a preliminary investigation to believe discrimination effectively occurred.
In 2000, 64.2 percent of the 1,190 cases filed in the state were closed. The percentage of closures continued to increase, reaching 76.4 percent of the 1,083 complaints filed in 2003.
When it receives a complaint, the EEOC first tries to mediate the case with the company — cases where and agreement cannot be reached either go to court or are definitely closed. But advocates said the deck is stacked against workers from the outset.
“The truth is that the best evidence of all is in the cabinet of the employer,” said Andrea Giampetro-Meyer, professor of law and social responsibility at Loyola College in Maryland.
She believes discrimination is still happening but that it is harder for workers to prove, because it is more subtle now than a few years ago and employers know the laws.
But Emmett F. McGee Jr., a partner with the Baltimore law firm Piper Rudnick, believes the biggest problem is illegitimate claims. He said filing with the EEOC is “a very easy and inexpensive recourse for an employee dissatisfied with the situation at work.”
Grinberg said there might be a little of both factors at work, but he agreed that it is difficult for workers to find proof.
Pamela J. White, an attorney with Ober, Kaler, Grimes and Shriver in Baltimore, said employees need to collect documents and find witnesses that prove they were qualified for their job and met expectations, and that they were singled out when compared with similar employees.
Of the cases that go to mediation, most result in an agreement with the employer. Since 2000, those settlements have amounted to at least $2 million a year in benefits for aggrieved workers in the state.
Last year, PJAX Inc. Freight Systems in Elkridge agreed to pay $2 million on charges that it refused to hire women. Also last year, Hugh O’Kane Electric Co. paid $1.1 million to settle charges that it subjected a group of employees to racial epithets.
But most employers refuse mediation efforts, Grinberg said. In those cases, the EEOC conducts further investigations and makes a decision on whether to take the case to court itself or give the worker the right to sue on his own.
It is rare for the EEOC to pursue a case in court: Between 1998 and last year, the agency took 64 Maryland cases to court. Grinberg said the EEOC chooses cases depending on its resources and priorities, and based on how egregious or frequent cases are.
That strategy has paid off: Of the 64 cases that have been adjudicated, most have been decided in favor of the workers, with a total of $6.8 million in benefits so far.
But experts said court should be the last option for workers. The first step is to complain to the company and, if that does not work, to the EEOC.
Before taking any action, however, attorneys recommend that workers analyze the evidence available and try to obtain more.
Despite her set-backs, Bryan said she will not give up. After she quit her job, she got another job but it did not work out. For her, the days of a $100,000 wage are gone — she is now selling her house and is trying to pay a $30,000 debt.
“I’ll probably appeal,” she said, “I’d love a jury to hear what happened.”
-30- CNS 04-16-04