Jury Begins Deliberations in LOC Discrimination Suit

Posted November 21, 2003 at 5:32pm

Attorneys made closing arguments Friday morning in a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the Library of Congress, and the jury could reach a decision as early as today.

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.

Higbee, who now works in the Library’s Hispanic division, is seeking $300,000 in damages, in addition to a retroactive promotion with back pay and benefits, attorney’s fees, and additional, unspecified, relief.

Pamela Huff, a U.S. attorney representing the Library, argued during closing statements before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola that many of Higbee’s allegations do not qualify under Title XII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination.

“Title Seven is for serious discriminatory actions,” Huff said, emphasizing that the law would not force a manager to be “nice” to an employee.

In her lawsuit, Higbee, 59, asserts that Sullivan “virtually ignored” her, shunning her both personally and professionally.

According to court documents, Higbee began work at the Library in 1976. In both March and May 1991 she was detailed to the 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’s attorney argued during the trial that after the librarian received national media attention in 1992 for locating missing material on magician Harry Houdini in a Library of Congress warehouse in Landover, Md., her supervisor began to act in a discriminatory manner.

“She should have been rewarded, it should have spurred what was starting to be a terrific career onward, but it wasn’t,” said attorney David Shapiro, who asserted that Sullivan “resented” Higbee because of the incident and subsequently “froze her out” and gave her an unfavorable employment review.

Huff countered those allegations, however, asserting that Higbee’s employment review of “satisfactory” was consistent with several years of reviews, and also asserted that Sullivan did not act in a different manner with other employees.

“[Sullivan] was a hands-off manager. … He was not the type of boss that was chatting around the water cooler with his employees,” Huff said.

Additionally, Huff argued that while Higbee received significant attention for locating the Houdini materials, the incident would not have otherwise advanced her career.

“That was part of a reference librarian’s job. … To call it a miraculous discovery, it’s a little absurd,” Huff said.

In a final rebuttal, Shapiro asserted that Sullivan’s actions may have been “subtle,” but were still significant enough to damage Higbee’s career.

“You can’t give her 10 years back,” Shapiro told the jury. “You can do one thing — give her a just compensation for a lost career.”

The jury, comprised of eight women and four men, began deliberations Friday and will resume today.