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Masry Is Cleared of Harassment

Courts: Thousand Oaks mayor is absolved of former employee's allegations but must pay her one year's salary for slander, a Van Nuys panel decides.

June 06, 2002|WENDY THERMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousand Oaks Mayor Ed Masry did not sexually harass or wrongfully terminate a former employee who sued him after she was fired, a jury decided Wednesday.

The Van Nuys jury cleared Masry, 69, of numerous allegations by the plaintiff, Kissandra Cohen, 23, who worked as a lawyer at Masry's firm in 1999.

However, jurors said Cohen should receive one year's salary, $120,000, because Masry slandered her during a television interview. Cohen was seeking $6.6 million in damages from Masry and his Westlake Village law firm, Masry & Vititoe.

Masry said he was delighted by the verdict despite the slander finding.

"I'm so happy we were vindicated," he said. "Frankly, if it cost me $120,000 to say what I said, it was worth it."

Cohen, who began sobbing when the verdict was read, had little to say afterward. Her lawyer, Dan Marino, declined to comment on the verdict, reached after three and a half days of deliberations.

Masry, depicted as the boss in the movie "Erin Brockovich," was accused by Cohen of firing her because she refused to have a personal relationship with him.

Masry testified that he fired Cohen because she lied about her academic credentials when hired and because her work performance made him conclude she was "in over her head."

Several jurors said outside the courtroom that there were mixed feelings about whether Masry or Cohen was the more believable. The civil case, which did not require a unanimous jury vote, resulted in a 10-2 vote in favor of Masry on the sexual harassment and wrongful termination allegations.

"It was a he-said-she-said case," said jury foreman Massoud Azizi of Porter Ranch.

Another juror, Karen Thompson of Valencia, said she felt Cohen had slightly more credibility on the stand than Masry.

Azizi said Masry should not have hired Cohen without checking her background. If Masry had been "more subtle and professional" when he spoke about Cohen in the TV interview, the jury would not have awarded damages, he said.

The jury also said on an 11-1 vote that Masry's law firm failed to circulate a brochure on sexual harassment to all employees, as required by law. Masry's attorneys termed the finding a technicality.

"The bottom line is they found no harassment," defense attorney Norm Watkins said. "This is a very good day."

During the 21-day trial in the courtroom of Judge Stanley Weisberg, Cohen alleged that Masry made constant sexual advances during the eight months she worked for him.

Her suit said she complained about sexual harassment by two other staff attorneys, but Masry did nothing.

The attorneys made leering comments and repeatedly tried to date her, she said. Cohen said Masry, Brockovich and others in the law firm used a steady stream of foul language and sexual references.

Masry, who denied the accusations, testified that Cohen claimed during her job interview that she was graduating first, second or third in her Loyola Law School class and was concurrently receiving an MBA.

He later learned, he said, that she was nearly last in her 398-member class and had been disqualified from the MBA program.

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