An Affair to Remember

The sexual-harassment suit against US West that arose out of former US West employee Robert Harlan's murder trial has taken a bizarre turn in U.S. District Court. In the past three months, many of the case's numerous plaintiffs have struggled to find new legal representation because of the revelation that their original attorney, Jeffrey Easley, had dated one of the plaintiffs.

Fifty-seven people--former female US West employees and some of their husbands--originally sued the phone company last fall, claiming that convicted murderer Harlan sexually assaulted or harassed them on the job and that US West did nothing to stop it. Now the plaintiff list is down to 24, and fewer than half are still allowing Easley to represent them.

At a hearing held May 10, Magistrate Judge Bruce D. Pringle tried to sort out the mess of new attorneys and plaintiffs representing themselves while he somberly summed up the situation by saying, "This case is going nowhere fast--no matter how we structure it."

The trouble began back in February of this year when US West attorney Beth Kiovsky deposed one of the plaintiffs, Gussie Hanna. According to court documents, Kiovsky asked Hanna whom she had dated since her troubles with Harlan and what the outcome of those relationships were. Hanna admitted to having dated three men since that time--the third being her attorney, Jeffrey Easley. When questioned further by Kiovsky, Hanna refused to reveal the "outcome" of that relationship and started to backpedal, saying she was confused about what Kiovsky meant by "dating." As Kiovsky pressed further, Easley's co-counsel, Margaret Brown Funk, objected to the questioning as irrelevant and in violation of privileged communication between attorney and client. According to two affidavits and a response to a motion, the deposition finally ended when Hanna burst into tears and ran out of the room.

The disclosure that Easley and Hanna had a personal relationship stunned at least some of the plaintiffs and US West's attorneys. Ted Olsen, an attorney with Sherman and Howard who is one of the members of US West's legal team, says, "I almost fell over when I learned of Easley dating his client."

Easley says, "It's US West calling it a relationship, not me." He blames US West for the uproar, characterizing it as a strategic attack on him to damage the case. He calls the company a "very vicious outlet" and insists that "what they're calling a relationship has nothing to do with why I filed the motions I did."

Other members of the legal community don't see it that way. "It's kind of shocking," says veteran attorney Walter Gerash, who inherited a few of Easley's ex-clients, "especially considering that the initial [basis] for the case is sexual oppression in the office."

Easley reacted quickly, reportedly sending out a memo to all of the plaintiffs he represented owning up to his association with Hanna and advising them he would no longer represent them because of potential problems arising from the association. Easley won't discuss the memo, but his ex-clients will. "Jeff let us all know," says Marilyn Geer, one of the plaintiffs in the case, "because he knew it was going to come out. He said he [had to withdraw] because he might jeopardize the case."

But while Easley spelled out the situation to his 27 plaintiffs, when he filed his motion to withdraw from all cases with U.S. District Judge John Kane, he provided no explanation for the action. US West objected to the withdrawal on that basis, and Kane agreed, denying the motion on the grounds that it didn't provide enough information for him to make a ruling.

Instead of refiling the motion, stating an explanation or requesting a private session in the judge's chambers to discuss the situation--an option that US West specifically spelled out in its objection to the original motion--Easley reversed his position and decided to continue representing all of the plaintiffs. For many, it was too much to take.

"Most of us were upset enough," says Geer about the discovery of the relationship. "Then he went and tried to withdraw--it was like he was abandoning us." When Easley changed his mind again, most of the plaintiffs, according to Geer, decided to go elsewhere.

Since March, when these motions took place, more than a dozen plaintiffs have chosen to disassociate themselves from Easley, who, at least for now, still represents Gussie Hanna and ten other plaintiffs. Some of those who've left Easley, like plaintiff Jay Feeney, have yet to find new counsel. Others have just dropped out of the litigation altogether. It's a situation that has stalled the case completely. According to one observer in court, "Every conference since March has been devoted to sorting out who's represented by whom."

Court documents confirm the lack of progress. On April 10 Magistrate Judge Pringle went so far as to personally poll each of the remaining plaintiffs to ask them who they wanted for counsel. All discovery of evidence was halted. The three pending motions remained pending. Pringle gave everyone concerned thirty days to sort out the representation issue.

The thirty days were up May 10, when no fewer than nine attorneys were present in court, including such well-known names as Gerash and Gary Lozow. Judge Pringle noted that there were still more outstanding motions to withdraw Easley as counsel and that some plaintiffs would have to move quickly to obtain legal representation or decide to represent themselves pro se, a prospect that did not appear to please Pringle in the least. Lozow, who says he's still deciding whether to enter the case on behalf of eight of Easley's former plaintiffs, was equally uncomfortable with the idea of picking up such a complicated case midway. "Easley has been up and down the ship of legal representation because of a variety of issues," he told Pringle. "I am reticent to embrace wholesale some of the stated claims that I didn't draft." The magistrate showed little patience, however, and ordered Lozow to decide by June 7 if he was in or out. Until then, Pringle noted dryly, "we are somewhat in limbo."

Robert Harlan was sentenced to death last July for the kidnapping, rape and murder of waitress Rhonda Maloney. US West had employed Harlan for seven years as a telephone operator prior to the murder. During those years, four formal complaints regarding his conduct toward women were filed with the company, but he was not discharged until four days after he was arrested for murder. The people now suing US West detail incidents ranging from Harlan's verbal sexual advances to physical assaults. Their suits--now combined for trial--claim that the harassment, coupled with US West's refusal to do anything about it, damaged the plaintiffs emotionally and have resulted, in the words of Hanna's complaint, in "forever diminishing...her ability to interact with other people.

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Michelle Johnston