Woman sues GW for anti-gay discrimination

A GW employee filed suit last month against the University, claiming that a supervisor began harassing her after he found out she was gay.

Kami Groom, who works in GW’s Information Systems and Services department, said the University failed to discipline ISS Assistant Director Mark Harris after Groom filed several complaints against him with the Equal Employment Opportunity office.

Bruce Fein, Groom’s lawyer, said while Harris made no direct reference to Groom’s sexual orientation, there was “overwhelming” evidence that she was the subject of discrimination.

“We do not allege that anybody explicitly said, ‘Kami we know you’re gay, and we don’t like you, so watch out,'” Fein said.

According to the lawsuit, Harris’ attitude towards Groom changed in May 2002, after he received an e-mail stating that Groom was taking an authorized vacation because her partner was in the hospital.

When Groom returned from her vacation, Harris subjected her to weekly tirades and openly berated her in front of other employees for not doing her job properly, the lawsuit alleges. Before learning of her sexual orientation, Harris never questioned Groom’s competency.

After several attempts at reconciliation failed, Groom filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity office in September 2002. The Equal Employment Opportunity office investigates cases where employees feel they have been discriminated. Upon finding evidence of discrimination, the office can dole out punishments, including assignment to a different post and termination of employment.

In February 2003, the office completed its investigation and found no evidence of discrimination. Groom then filed a second grievance, alleging that Harris retaliated against her for the sexual orientation grievance – a claim the Equal Employment Opportunity office affirmed in April 2003.

Despite the office’s acknowledgment of misconduct in April 2003, the lawsuit states, “nothing has been done to date to rectify the retaliatory wrongdoing of Harris.”

EqualEmployment Opportunity office Director Cynthia Richardson-Crooks declined to comment on the case, but said her office receives grievances in the “double digits” every year, and that “several times” disciplinary actions were taken.

Groom, an information systems coordinator, was the only ISS employee who did not receive a raise in 2003, and was taken off several projects she had been working on, the lawsuit states.

Fein said Harris violated Groom’s rights under the D.C. Human Rights Code, which protects people against discrimination based on their race, gender or sexual orientation. Under federal law, GW is responsible for Harris’ actions within the confines of the University.

Groom, who declined through her lawyer to comment, is seeking $1.5 million from the defendants – GW and three of its employees – and a statement finding Harris “liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress.” ISS Executive Director Ronald Bonig and ISS Director Johnny Bret Jones were named as co-defendants in the lawsuit, because as supervisors to Harris, they failed to discipline him for his actions.

Bonig, Harris and Jones declined in telephone conversations to comment, as did Associate General Counsel Richard Weitzner, who is handling the case for the University.

Fein said GW has until mid-July to make a settlement offer before the case heads to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, which will begin proceedings some time early next year.

Fein said his client is willing to settle with GW, but would not disclose whether he has received an offer or what one would entail.

Fein said GW should have disciplined Harris for his retaliation against Groom for the sexual orientation complaint, and given Groom a pay raise and compensation for her “pain and suffering.”

The lawsuit states that as a result of Harris’ actions, Groom has been plagued by depression and has contemplated suicide on several occasions.

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