Sexual Harassment Case Bruising for Accusers

It was not easy, but in the end Elizabeth Kulka won. A San Diego Superior Court jury said that Kulka had been the victim of a long running sexual harassment campaign while she worked as a sergeant at the Harbor Police Department.

How was she harassed? She got birth control pamphlets through the department’s interoffice mail, and sent to her home. Someone signed her up for an Internet dating service, describing her in the profile as “sexually active.”

A photo of a naked woman was put in her locker, and she was the subject of rumors that she was having sex with her superiors.

The department, which is under the San Diego Unified Port District, brushed off her complaints. The jury didn’t: In 1999, she won $520,000 in damages, all of which stood up on appeal.

Kulka, who retired from the department in 2008, said she felt vindicated by the verdict. With allegations of sexual harassment and mistreatment of women now swirling around San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, and potential lawsuits against him looming, Kulka reflected last week on her court battle.

The Police Department’s lawyers “went through everything” about her, she said. “By the time it was said and done, they knew everything about me, and everything I had ever put down on paper.” Sexual harassment lawsuits can be bruising and invasive cases. Many aren’t as public as Kulka’s. Often, they’re settled out of court or the case is dismissed before getting near a jury.

No women have formally filed a claim or lawsuit against Filner. Instead, lawyers Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs, as well as former Councilwoman Donna Frye, said they have spoken with an unknown number of women who have shared that Filner harassed them.

The three former Filner allies have held two news conferences to call for the mayor’s resignation. He has refused, after first acknowledging inappropriate behavior and apologizing. Now he is denying he sexually harassed anyone and says he would be exonerated if an impartial investigation were done.

Some details of the allegations have been revealed: Filner is said to have forcibly kissed and then touched the breast of a campaign worker; grabbed and kissed a constituent; and made a sexually suggestive comment to a mayoral staffer about her panties while in an elevator.

Gonzalez has also talked of a “Filner headlock,” in which the mayor puts his arm around a woman’s neck to pull her closer and suggest they speak alone. He also described the “Filner dance,” which women did to avoid being kissed by the mayor.

If the women sue, as Gonzalez has said some will, here’s a look at how harassment cases work from the inside out, according to veteran litigators who bring the claims and those who defend them.

On Offense

Joshua Gruenberg is a veteran San Diego lawyer who has represented workers in cases against the city, county and other agencies, as well as private employees.

His first step: try to resolve the situation short of filing a lawsuit. Maybe a new job assignment, or a consultation with the human resources department to get the victim separated from the perpetrator.

All of this is to avoid what Gruenberg does well: go to court. “When a client hires a lawyer, typically you have to be prepared to go to battle,” he said.

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