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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Before #MeToo, Washington state law laid groundwork for sexual-harassment protections

“I would be surprised to find another state that has significantly more protections than Washington state” regarding sexual harassment, says discrimination plaintiff attorney Paul Woods, shown here in downtown Seattle. (Erika Schultz / Seattle Times)
By Christine Willmsen Seattle Times

Michelle Glasgow’s story could be like any in today’s media accounts of sexual harassment done by the wealthy and powerful. But she wasn’t famous, and her job at a bottling plant in Auburn in the 1980s barely paid enough to cover the rent and support her son.

After they were fondled by a co-worker, Glasgow and another employee filed a lawsuit against Georgia-Pacific Corp. and won a landmark case that has helped thousands of women across Washington state.

In 1985, the state Supreme Court in Glasgow v. Georgia-Pacific Corp. clearly defined for the first time that sexual harassment was a form of workplace discrimination that violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination. No state case before that had determined when and how an employer could be held liable for sexual harassment.

Glasgow received a small settlement, but she never fully understood the implications of the court’s decision because she lived a hard life marked by numerous challenges, her family recently said. Yet the case represented a watershed moment for women who encounter inappropriate and even criminal behavior that can be all but ingrained with some employers.

A year after the Glasgow ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. It determined that sexual harassment was a form of sexual discrimination and violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if the actions were severe or pervasive enough to affect employment conditions. It was the first time the high court had weighed in on a sexual-harassment case, and it represented a major victory for “anyone who ever suffered a pinch, proposition or any other stunt perpetrated in the name of lust, piggishness or power,” the Washington Post said at the time.

Because there is no specific law for sexual harassment, both cases set the precedents that courts rely on today to determine workplace discrimination and civil-rights violations. They also, for the first time, set boundaries for what could be considered sexual harassment in the workplace.

However, individual perceptions of harassment can be and often are different from legal interpretations. For example, while a sexual comment is clearly inappropriate in the workplace, it most likely isn’t illegal.

The basic concepts of sexual harassment are similar in our state courts and federal courts, so someone can file a lawsuit in either. But interpretations, deadlines for filing, jury verdicts and financial awards vary between the systems.

Attorneys agree Washington state is a leader in extending workplace protections for workers facing sexual harassment because of Glasgow and other cases.

“I would be surprised to find another state that has significantly more protections than Washington state,” said discrimination plaintiff attorney Paul Woods.

Katheryn Bradley, a Seattle employment lawyer, agrees. “It’s definitely a difficult state for employers — no question about it,” she added.

As the #MeToo movement continues to energize and empower women, it’s essential to understand the milestone Washington cases that helped shape the legal recourse for employees who experience sexual harassment at work.

Single moms in a factory

Michelle Glasgow was a 23-year-old recently divorced mother with little job experience when Georgia-Pacific hired her in 1981 to pack plastic bottles for $6.23 an hour at its Auburn factory. As a conveyor delivered the bottles to her work station, Glasgow’s supervisor David Long held her in place soon after she started work.

“He grabbed my hips and moved behind me, rubbing his front against my rear,” she said during a deposition. He rubbed his crotch on Glasgow several times, and another time he put his hands on her bare midriff, she said.

“I just remember thinking that I didn’t like him placing his hands on me,” she said.

She complained to the plant manager, but little was done. As other workers distanced themselves from Glasgow because of her complaint, she continued to feel intimidated by Long’s presence.

She became nervous and developed insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Finally, after about nine months, she’d had enough and refused to come to work one day. Another manager insisted she had to.

“I know I was hysterical and crying and didn’t want to go, and I didn’t go, and I never went back,” she said during the deposition.

Ruth Holder, mother of four in 1979, also worked as a plastics packer at the same factory. The first of couple of times Long touched her, the 43-year-old said nothing.

“There were several occasions where he would place his hands on my hips and in passing rub himself against my backside,” Holder said in a deposition.

Recently divorced, Holder needed the job and its benefits to support her children. After Long put his hand on Holder’s breast in August 1981, she complained to the plastics supervisor. The plant manager demoted Long to machine operator and transferred him to another shift.

One month later, Long “cupped” Holder’s buttocks, saying “Good morning, Ruthie.” She told Long to keep his hands off her. Holder complained to the plant manager and filed a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission in January 1982.

While the commission and the company conducted separate investigations, the plant manager promoted Long back to a supervisory position. Holder took a forklift-driver job on the graveyard shift, with a cut in pay, to get away from Long.

Georgia-Pacific contemplated firing Long, but after consulting with his union, the company suspended him for three days. Meanwhile, Holder lost weight, suffered stomach problems and saw a therapist. After co-workers complained about her job performance, Holder said she had no other choice but to quit.

“I’ve never walked out on a job before in my life … it did a lot to my pride,” she said at the time.

Initially, Long denied inappropriately touching Glasgow and Holder, but he admitted to it after they filed their lawsuit in Pierce County. Long and Glasgow have since died, and Holder didn’t want to comment.

The two women won their case and were awarded a total of $45,000. Georgia-Pacific lost on appeal, and the Washington State Supreme Court in 1985 determined the company was liable for sexual harassment by creating a hostile work environment. In its ruling, the court created four requirements to determine employer liability that are used today:

The harassment was unwelcome.

The harassment was because of someone’s gender.

The harassment affected conditions of employment.

The harassment was known or should have been known to the employer, which failed to take prompt and adequate action.

Woods, the discrimination attorney, said the latter point is important: If an employee fails to report the harassment to a manager or to human resources, or fails to take advantage of other preventive measures, the employer may not be held liable. Once an employee complains, the worker is protected from retaliation through the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.

“You have to show management was aware of it,” Woods said.

The topless nightclub case

Shortly after Susan Schonauer started working as a waitress at Fox’s topless nightclub in Pierce County in December 1991, managers wanted her to participate in the weekly nude waitress contest.

On three successive Mondays, a manager or his assistant demanded she be part of the contest, and they handed her a white information card that asked her for a stage name and to describe her sexual preferences and fantasies.

She insisted that she wasn’t a dancer and refused each time. One week later, she was fired. Schonauer filed suit in Pierce County, but her sexual-harassment case was dismissed. When she appealed, the State Court of Appeals ruled in her favor in 1995.

The appellate case in Division II (which includes Pierce and 12 other Southwest Washington counties) established that DCR Entertainment, which owned Fox’s, violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination.

The ruling stated that when an employer demands an employee gratify a third party such as a customer or friend, it’s just as threatening and intimidating to the employee as if the employer had made the demand to gratify themselves, and it is considered sexual harassment.

The “reasonable woman” test

Another case, involving an Internal Revenue Service agent in California, further interpreted harassment and found the motive of the harasser doesn’t matter.

For example, a male employee’s comment to a female co-worker that she has nice legs may seem like a compliment to him, but it still can be a form of harassment. What matters is how that victim feels in that environment, Seattle lawyer Robin Shishido said.

“It’s the case of what would a reasonable woman think, not a man or a harasser,” she said of the 1991 U.S. Ninth Circuit decision in Ellison V. Brady.

Kerry Ellison, an IRS revenue agent in San Mateo, stated a co-worker repeatedly asked her to lunch. He also wrote her a note saying, “I know that you are worth knowing with or without sex. … Watching you. Experiencing you from O so far away.”

The judges determined that in analyzing harassment, an understanding of the victim’s views is required because of the different perspectives of men and women. The judges believed courts should ask if a “reasonable woman” would think the lunch requests and bizarre notes were harassment.

A daughter’s pride

Glasgow, a smart and big-hearted woman, rarely talked about the landmark case she helped initiate while her daughter Melissa Risovi was growing up. Risovi, who lives in Ash, North Carolina, understood its importance only after she studied it in a paralegal course in community college.

“My mom was an amazing person,” the 35-year-old said. “It was so brave of her to do that in the ’80s. It had to be scary … I know it was really hard for her going through that process of going to court and winning the case.”

But Risovi said her mother didn’t realize the full impact of the case because it was one of many struggles she faced. An abusive childhood, three dysfunctional marriages and addiction to alcohol and prescription pain medication consumed her mother’s life.

The lawsuit was one of the many problems that contributed to her addictions, said Michelle Glasgow’s brother, Michael Brunette.

“She pretty much spiraled down after that,” he said. “Her life went to hell.”

Her portion of the settlement money — $22,500 — went to pay off loans taken out while she wasn’t employed. She moved from job to job, borrowed money from friends and family, and lived at times in a camper and a house with no heat. Some people cut off ties with her.

Glasgow died of an accidental drug overdose two years ago. Risovi wishes her mother was alive to witness her upcoming wedding and the birth of her child. She also wonders what her mother would say about her contribution for women amid the #MeToo movement.