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Librarian’s Suit Will Go Forward

A federal judge has refused to dismiss a librarian’s sexual discrimination lawsuit against the Library of Congress, calling the government’s suggestion that the woman’s allegations should be dismissed for failure to state a claim “startling.”

“The government’s assertion is in one sense startling,” U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola wrote in an 11-page opinion Monday that will allow the case to proceed to a trial before a jury in U.S. District Court.

“It, after all, is arguing that a woman who claims she was victimized by sexual discrimination over a substantial period of time in nearly every aspect of her employment, leading to the destruction of her career, has failed to state a claim under the civil rights laws,” Facciola wrote.

The plaintiff, Reference Librarian Joan Higbee, sued Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in December 2000. Higbee alleged 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.

Library of Congress public relations officials did not return calls seeking comment.

But in court documents, Sullivan and the Library of Congress repeatedly denied Higbee’s discrimination claims, stating that Sullivan took action for “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons.”

Higbee, who earned a doctorate in Romance languages from Johns Hopkins University and holds a master of science in library science from Catholic University, received significant national media attention in 1992 when she found a wealth of missing material on magician Harry Houdini tucked away in a Library of Congress warehouse in Landover, Md.

Her find was of particular interest and value to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kenneth Silverman, who was working on a biography of Houdini at the time.

But it was shortly after her discovery that Higbee contends she encountered a “hostile work environment” at the hand of her supervisor.

According to her complaint, Higbee began working for the Library in 1976 and was assigned to the Library’s rare book and special collections division in both March and May of 1991, making her the first and only woman to serve as a reference specialist in that division. She was permanently reassigned to the division in September of that year.

Higbee — who currently is a French Caribbean specialist in the Library’s Hispanic division — contends in court filings that Sullivan began a “continuing campaign to undercut her achievements, undervalue her background and demean her job performance.”

Following the discovery of the missing elements of the Houdini collection, Higbee stated she was personally and professionally shunned and “virtually ignored” by Sullivan, who kept her male counterparts busy with assignments but gave Higbee nothing to do.

In an affidavit that is part of the court’s paper trail, Sullivan denied that he was in any way trying to “ruin her career.”

“On the contrary, I am probably the one person who saved Dr. Higbee’s career from stagnation,” Sullivan stated.

Sullivan goes on in that affidavit to assert that Higbee’s “scholarly discovery” in the archival collection was the sort of thing that “happens in all special collections on a daily basis and is typical of the field.” He went on to suggest that Higbee had hurt the Library by publicizing her find.

“If Dr. Higbee had properly investigated the collection she would have discovered that she had made no discovery except for the fact that she had not previously known about the collection,” Sullivan stated. “Therefore, nothing was ‘missing’ in the sense used by Dr. Higbee.”

Sullivan continued: “Dr. Higbee did not merit commendation for the handling of the magic collection and the attendant publicity. … In fact, her statements cast the Library in a most negative light as she basically accused her colleagues of dereliction of duty.”

In January 1993, Higbee filed an administrative complaint alleging gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

In her complaint, Higbee wrote that “as a woman” she had been harassed “through silent treatment, intimidating and accusatory memoranda, trumped up charges, denial of meaningful recognition for professional accomplishments and responsibilities and withholding of work assignments designated by my position description.”

Higbee contends that in 1995 she was denied a pay raise known as a quality step increase and given a “satisfactory” rating by Sullivan, while another male employee sharing the same position was given an “outstanding” rating and raise.

In 1995, an official with the Equal Employment Opportunity complaints office concluded that Higbee had suffered disparate treatment and had been subjected to a hostile work environment, according to court documents.

But that decision was later reversed by the director of dispute resolution and equal employment opportunity, and Higbee was transferred to another division of the Library during a reorganization and reduction in force in 1998. Sullivan left the Library the same year.

In her subsequent lawsuit, Higbee, who is being represented by David Shapiro of Swick & Shapiro, asserted that Sullivan subjected her to a campaign of mistreatment that took many forms.

She contends she was not assigned work commensurate with her position description, while two men in the same position were. She also asserts that she was shunned professionally and personally.

In his decision this week, Facciola stated that there must be some showing of “materially adverse consequences affecting the terms, conditions or privileges” of an individual’s current or future employment opportunities or businesses and federal agencies would be “overwhelmed by every trivial complaint.”

But the judge also indicated that Higbee had met the threshold to bring her claim, noting that she “easily meets her burden, which is light and thereby shifts to the defendant the burden of showing legitimate business reasons for the actions claimed to be discriminatory.”

In court documents, co-workers of Higbee testify under oath that they witnessed a disturbing pattern of Sullivan’s discriminatory behavior.

In an affidavit, Robert Shields, one of the two men who worked alongside Higbee under Sullivan, stated that while “Mr. Sullivan carried on friendly relationships with male reference staff, he pointedly ignored Dr. Higbee in an obvious fashion. While male reference staff were busy with assignments, Dr. Higbee was given nothing. These actions occurred daily.”

Barbara Dash, a senior processing librarian in the same division since 1990, said she was also treated unfairly by Sullivan, who only gave her nonprofessional tasks to perform, even though she had undergraduate and graduate education in Russian studies and a master of library science degree.

Despite her qualifications, Dash stated in her affidavit that Sullivan at one point hired an outside contractor from Canada, who had spent most of his life working as a paramedic, to work on the library’s Russian collections, instead of utilizing her expertise.

This is not the first time allegations of discrimination have been lodged against the Library of Congress.

In the 1980s, some 1,500 black employees sued the Library for what they alleged were discriminatory hiring practices. The library settled that class-action lawsuit in 1994 for about $9 million.

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