Trial Begins for Discrimination Suit Against LOC

Posted November 7, 2003 at 4:18pm

A sexual discrimination lawsuit filed against the Library of Congress heads to trial today, just 10 days after a federal judge refused a second request by LOC officials to dismiss a portion of the claims made in the case.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola declined on Oct. 31 a motion by Library attorneys seeking partial reconsideration of a February decision in which he refused to dismiss the case in its entirety.

“It remains to be seen, at trial, whether plaintiff can produce sufficient evidence to show that the series of actions taken by her employer ‘affect[ed] the terms, conditions, or privileges of her employment or her future employment opportunities such that a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that plaintiff has suffered objectively tangible harm,’” Facciola wrote in his decision.

The plaintiff, Reference Librarian Joan Higbee, filed suit in December 2000, alleging disparate treatment on the basis of sex under her former supervisor, Larry Sullivan, who served as chief of the Library’s rare book and special collections division until 1998.

“He suppressed her as a female librarian as compared to her male counterparts,” Higbee’s attorney, David Shapiro, said Thursday. “He treated her differently and made her workplace hostile.”

Higbee, who now works in the Library’s Hispanic division, is seeking monetary relief and a retroactive promotion.

An LOC spokeswoman declined to comment on the case, noting that the litigation is ongoing.

In its initial motion to dismiss, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which represents the Library, argued that “Each of the Plaintiff’s allegations, even if true, does not constitute an adverse employment action.”

Subsequently the Library filed a motion in March for partial reconsideration. Facciola notes in his October opinion: “Specifically, defendant contends that ‘the Court did not determine that any of the Plaintiff’s allegations standing alone rose to the level of an adverse employment action’ and that the court improperly aggregated plaintiff’s claims for the purposes of finding an allegation of tangible harm.”

According to court documents, Higbee began work at the Library in 1976. In both March and May 1991 she was detailed to the Library’s rare book and special collections division, making her the first woman to serve as a reference librarian in that office. She received a permanent assignment to the division in September 1991.

Higbee received national media attention in 1992 after she located missing material on magician Harry Houdini in a Library of Congress warehouse in Landover, Md.

Following a Wednesday pretrial conference, Facciola ruled that testimony from the Library’s Equal Employment Opportunity specialist, along with related EEO reports, may be allowed during the trial.

In 1995, the EEO official, Dean Flowers, found Higbee had been the subject of discrimination and subject to a hostile work environment, but his decision was later reversed by the director of dispute resolution and equal employment opportunity.

“At trial, I will hold a voir dire out of the presence of the jury, during which both sides will have the opportunity to present arguments regarding the trustworthiness of Flowers’ and [his] report,” Facciola wrote. “If the evidence is found to be trustworthy and is thus admitted, I will remind the jury that they are the ultimate finders of fact and that they can assess Flowers’ testimony and report in the same manner that they weigh all of the other evidence.”

Additionally, Facciola ruled that Higbee’s attorneys may introduce evidence “of chaotic conditions and understaffing” in the rare books division, prior to a decision by Library management to reduce the number of employees within the division.

“Specifically, plaintiff seeks to show that, while the department was understaffed and in need of assistance, Sullivan proposed a Reduction in Force (“RIF”) and the Library ultimately acted on that recommendation, which resulted in plaintiff’s transfer to another division,” Facciola wrote. “In other words, plaintiff seeks to show that the real reason Sullivan proposed the Reduction in Force was to get rid of plaintiff, not because the division was overstaffed or for any other reason.”

Attorneys for the Library have argued that such testimony is “irrelevant to any claims before the court,” Facciola wrote.