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High Court Upholds Plaintiff's Privacy in Sex Harassment Case

August 28, 1987|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The state Supreme Court, citing the right to privacy, held unanimously Thursday that a woman who brought a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment in the workplace cannot be subjected to questioning about her sex life.

The court ruled that Katherine Vinson, a 60-year-old Oakland widow who said she suffered severe emotional distress because of the advances and threats of a local college official, must submit to a examination by a psychiatrist for the defense.

The justices said the defendants in the widely watched case had not, however, shown good cause for an inquiry into the woman's sexual history, habits or practices.

The court indicated that in future cases, such inquiries should take place only when essential to a fair outcome of a sexual harassment suit.

The justices said that trial courts, before authorizing an examination of a plaintiff's sex life, should weigh its value against the constitutional right to privacy and a recent declaration by the Legislature that such probes should be made only in "extraordinary circumstances."

"We cannot agree that the mere initiation of a sexual harassment suit, even with the rather extreme mental and emotional damage (the woman) claims to have suffered, functions to waive all her privacy interests, exposing her persona to the unfettered mental probing of defendants' (psychiatric) expert," Justice Stanley Mosk wrote for the court.

Vinson's attorney praised the decision, saying it would help lessen concern among women that bringing sexual harassment suits would subject them to probes of their sex lives.

"This is the first state case where the court has explicitly ruled that the plaintiff in a sexual harassment suit does not leave her right to privacy on the courthouse doorstep," said the lawyer, Patricia A. Shiu of the Employment Law Center in San Francisco.

Steven C. Owyang, executive and legal affairs secretary for the state Fair Employment and Housing Commission, agreed that the decision will probably encourage more people to file such complaints.

"The commission has been very concerned that women be able to bring their cases and testify in court without themselves being put on trial for their own sexual history," Owyang said.

According to Earl Sulloway of the enforcement division of the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, 1,117 complaints were filed during the last fiscal year alleging sexual harassment, representing about 15% of claims of employment discrimination. By contrast, 631 complaints of sexual harassment, 8% of claims, were filed in the 1983-84 fiscal year, he said.

The case before the court involved a lawsuit brought in 1982 by Vinson against the Peralta Community College District and Ronald A. Grant, a program administrator for the district.

Vinson sought damages for emotional distress, loss of sleep, anxiety, mental anguish, humiliation and reduced self-esteem she said she suffered as the result of an encounter with Grant during a job interview.

The woman alleged that Grant made salacious remarks and told her she would not get the job unless she agreed to sexual relations. She said she rejected his advances and took another job with the district but was fired by Grant after he found out.

The school district and Grant denied Vinson's allegations and, in pretrial proceedings in Alameda Superior Court, obtained an order requiring her to submit to a psychological exam to test her claim of mental distress.

The order was upheld by the state Court of Appeal, and Vinson took the case to the state Supreme Court, contending that an unrestricted mental exam inevitably would go into her sex life and thus violate her right to privacy.

Vinson drew support in friend-of-the-court briefs filed by the state Fair Employment and Housing Commission, women's groups and civil rights organizations.

The court, in a 28-page opinion by Mosk, sought to balance Vinson's privacy rights against the defendants' right to a fair trial.

It ruled that Vinson must submit to a psychiatric exam because she had raised the issue of her mental state by alleging that she suffers distress.

The court rejected the defendants' claim that to protect their right to a fair trial, they were entitled to conduct a mental examination of Vinson "without substantial restrictions on its scope."

The justices noted that the California Constitution calls privacy "an inalienable right" and that the state Legislature recently enacted statutes designed to protect the privacy of plaintiffs in sexual harassment and other cases.

The court noted that the Legislature had declared in a preamble to the measures that inquiries into the sex lives of plaintiffs "have the clear potential to discourage complaints and to annoy and harass litigants" and should be permitted in trial or pretrial proceedings only in "extraordinary circumstances."

The justices said that when the issue arises, judges, in deciding whether there is good cause to probe the sex life of a complainant, should make the evaluation "in the light of the legislative purpose" of the laws and the plaintiff's constitutional right to privacy.

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