Court Asked to Bar Probing of Sex History in Job Harassment Cases

May 07, 1987|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The state Supreme Court was urged Wednesday to invoke the right to privacy and prohibit psychological examinations that go into the sex lives of alleged victims of sexual harassment on the job.

The lawyer for an Oakland woman who claimed she suffered "severe emotional distress" from the sexual demands of a college employment official told the justices that women would be discouraged from bringing discrimination suits if their sexual histories might be subject to inquiry and could be revealed in court proceedings.

San Francisco attorney Patricia A. Shiu said psychological exams in such cases should be barred, or at least severely limited. "There is an important state interest at stake here--eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace," she said. However, the lawyer for the Peralta Community College District and other defendants in the case argued that they should be able to have the plaintiff examined before trial so they could make their own evaluation of her claims on how the alleged incident affects her mental state.

"Our ability to prepare a defense would be unfairly hampered without it," said Eugene Brown Jr., an Oakland attorney.

The case argued before the justices may provide one of the first indications of how a more conservative court, now led by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, will treat attempts to expand the constitutional right to privacy--a right that was generally given broad interpretation when the court was dominated by liberals under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.

The justices' decision also could affect the application of a state statute that went into effect last year requiring that a defendant in a sexual harassment case show "good cause" before a plaintiff can be ordered to submit to a psychological exam.

The Legislature in 1980 barred courts from ordering such exams for sexual assault victims in criminal cases.

In the case before the court, Katherine Vinson, a 60-year-old widow, brought a sex harassment and job discrimination suit in 1982, seeking punitive damages for emotional distress, loss of sleep, anxiety, mental anguish and loss of reputation as the result of an encounter with a district official in 1979.

Vinson alleged that when she met with Ronald A. Grant, seeking a post in a Comprehensive Education and Training Act program that he directed for the district, she was told by Grant that he wanted to have sexual relations and that she would not get the job unless she complied. Grant has denied the allegations.

Court Order Sought

In pretrial proceedings in Alameda Superior Court, lawyers for the district and Grant sought a court order requiring that Vinson submit to a psychological exam on her claims of mental distress. Her lawyers, fearing the inquiry would inevitably go into her sexual history and attitudes, objected. But the court granted the defendant's request and the decision was later upheld by the state Court of Appeal.

Vinson's subsequent petition to the state Supreme Court was supported by civil liberty and women's legal groups, which urged the justices to either bar or strictly limit psychological questioning of plaintiffs in sex harassment cases.

In Wednesday's hearing, several of the justices closely questioned Shiu on how they could forbid a psychological exam for Vinson when she herself had raised the question of her mental state in her lawsuit.

Exam Not Sought

The attorney replied that Vinson had not sought a mental exam or mental care for herself and did not intend to present psychiatric experts at trial--and that such testimony was not necessary for the jury to weigh her claim of emotional distress and mental anguish.

"But," persisted Justice Allen E. Broussard, "if you were representing the defendants, wouldn't you want to have some expert testimony on whether or not her symptoms were attributable to the incident at issue?"

Shiu conceded that the defense might welcome such assistance but stood by her contention that any value of such testimony was outweighed by Vinson's right to privacy.

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