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1st of Disney Harassment Suits Nears Close

Workplace: Case could have larger implications for firm if jury finds it shirked sexual-guideline duties.

May 09, 1997|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Whether we like it or not, because we are Disney, we are held to a higher standard. But that is appropriate."

--Michael Eisner, Walt Disney Co.

chairman and chief executive

in Disney's 1994 annual report

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Disney's "higher standard" is being challenged in Los Angeles County Superior Court this week as the first of four sexual harassment suits filed against three Walt Disney Co. employees comes to a close.

The lawsuits against Disney and three of its employees claim that the Burbank-based company violated California's fair employment and housing regulations, which require employers to "ensure a workplace free from sexual harassment" and to educate employees about harassment.

Beverly Abbott-Stavely, a 13-year Disney employee who continues to work for the company in its treasury department, is also seeking unspecified damages in the case, which will probably go to the seven-woman, five-man jury early next week. Dates have not been set for suits filed by Marcia Melton, Mina Shadman and Monica Peterson, all of whom worked for Abbott-Stavely at Disney. Melton also continues to be employed at Disney.

The case potentially has larger implications for Disney if the jury finds Disney did not adequately make available to all employees guidelines on sexual harassment.

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The charges stem from incidents that allegedly occurred between 1992 and 1994, according to all four lawsuits, which name Disney and employees David Humdy, Kathy Clark and Donna Hassell.

The suits allege that in addition to being subjected to a hostile work environment, the women were not informed of Disney's policy on harassment. They maintain that the policy was contained in a manual kept only in supervisors' offices. The situation, they say, was inadequate and left them without recourse, as supervisors were allegedly part of the harassment problem.

Michael Buckhoff, Disney vice president of human relations, admitted in testimony that during the period in question, such information was made available to the bulk of employees on a "need to know" basis because of budget constraints. In 1994, Disney reported record revenue of more than $10 billion. Disney representatives refused to comment on whether full employee manuals are now available to all employees.

Disney attorneys John Quinn, Ann Kotlarski and Thomas Edwards declined to comment earlier this week, as did a Disney corporate representative reached by phone.

The three defendants are still employed by Disney. Humdy previously supervised six people in the treasury department, including the four women suing him. Humdy, who now works in television finance, testified that after the allegations were brought, he was demoted in title but did not take a pay cut.

"The only reason I'm still at Disney is that I have a supportive husband and three daughters to take care of," Abbott-Stavely said last week.

In court, Disney's attorneys have denied or downplayed accusations that Humdy made numerous lewd remarks, that he allegedly pulled his pants down on at least one occasion and that he rubbed his genitals against cubicle walls. On the stand, Humdy dismissed the latter as a "push-up type of activity."

During testimony, Abbott-Stavely said Clark "protected" Humdy and shared information with him after women complained about his behavior.

Abbott-Stavely and others have said in depositions that they felt uncomfortable going to Clark, citing Clark's producer credits on a soft-core porn video in the 1980s that she made for another company, but while employed by Disney. Clark is listed as executive producer of the video "An Evening With Kitten."

During testimony, Hassell was accused of not taking action to stop Humdy's alleged harassment. On the witness stand, Humdy and others said Hassell wrote a skit performed at a 1992 Disney Christmas party at the Castaway restaurant in Burbank. In it, Hassell played a little girl who called herself "Pussy" while sitting on Santa's lap. Humdy said he played Santa in the skit, but he denied inviting Hassell's character to "sit on [his] North Pole," as Abbott-Stavely claimed in her deposition.

Disney is alleging that Abbott-Stavely falsified documents while working for Humdy, although she was never reprimanded and there is no paper trail that definitively supports this.

*

Nikki Tolt, who represents Abbott-Stavely, estimates that Disney has spent at least $2 million defending itself against this suit alone.

Disney also faces similar charges in a separate complaint filed in July 1995 by an ex-Hollywood Records employee. Christina Anthony is suing Disney, its Hollywood Records unit and former employees Brenda Romano and Bob Pfeifer, as well as attorney Richard Lehrer, interim president at the label. A trial date has been tentatively set for August.

Anthony alleges she was harassed, then fired when it became known that she was informing other female employees of their legal rights with regard to harassment. Anthony had been a witness to notorious sexual harassment at Geffen Records in the late '80s. Shortly before Anthony filed her suit, Hollywood Records producer Mark Hudson left the company amid complaints of harassment against him.

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