May 25, 2000
Wunderkind lawyer's sexual lawsuit against "Erin Brockovich" legal firm.
Kissandra Cohen had everything going for her.A certified child prodigy with a sky-high IQ, by age 20 she had finished law school and was heading toward an MBA degree.
Early last year, while still at Loyola Law School, she was hired as a law clerk by the firm of Masry & Vititoe in Westlake Village.In September, while the results of her bar examination were still pending (she passed), partner Edward L. Masry raised her salary to $120,000 a year and sweetened the pot with a "fully loaded" 1998 Ford Explorer, a top-of-the-line cell phone, and other benefits.Masry enthusiastically described the state's youngest lawyer as "brilliant," adding, "I wouldn't hesitate to give her any file in our office. I predict in 10 years she'll be one of the premier trial attorneys in California."
Today, Cohen is out of a job, can't get a new one, and has filed a voluminous lawsuit against Masry and his associates. In it, she details incident after incident of sexual harassment, as well as religious discrimination.Masry has filed his own suit, accusing Cohen of slander.
Cohen's suit, though laced with graphic language and descriptions of a workplace rampant with sexism, might have gone unnoticed by the media but for the fact that the hit movie "Erin Brockovich" opened on the nation's movie screens about the same time.
Based on an actual case, the film stars Julia Roberts in the title role as a feisty young woman who is hired by Masry (played by Albert Finney) in 1992 as a file clerk.Though she has no legal training, Brockovich gets her teeth into a case which accused Pacific Gas & Electric of polluting the ground water near its plant in Hinkley, Calif., allegedly causing severe physical harm to some 600 residents.
Masry and Brockovich, working as a team, won a judgment in 1996 of $333 million, the largest penalty ever assessed in a non-jury trial.The real Brockovich has continued to work at the law firm and is now its director of environmental research and investigation.
The relationship between Masry and Brockovich plays a role in the two current opposing lawsuits and adds to the case's complexity.Indeed, to talk to Cohen and Masry and to read their pleadings is to enter a kind of wonderland, in which even the simplest fact is spun into diametrically opposed testimonies.Cohen charges that during her 11 months at the law firm she was subject to constant groping, pinching, nuzzling, verbal innuendoes, obscene language and other forms of sexual harassment by Masry, citing more than 20 specific incidents.
The 21-year-old Cohen pictures the 67-year-old Masry as a man fixated on the female breast and who hired and paid women employees, including a Playboy model, according to their looks and other physical endowments.
In addition, Cohen filed 10 counts of sexual harassment against two other lawyers in the firm.At one point in her brief, Cohen says that "Brockovich and others had implied (to Cohen) or claimed outright at various times that Masry and Brokovich had had a sexual relationship."
Masry and Brockovich deny the allegation and have filed a slander suit against Cohen.Cohen's second set of charges deal with "Discrimination and Harassment Based on Religion." She affirms that at Masry's insistence, she was forced to attend a series of Friday evening sessions at the law office, despite her plea for a change of dates so that she could celebrate the Sabbath with her family.In separate interviews, Masry said that there were only two such meetings, and that in both Cohen left around 6 p.m. However, Cohen responded that there were close to a dozen meetings, generally lasting until 10:30 p.m.
Another complaint by Cohen revolved around last June's Jewish Journal graduation issue, which pictured her on the cover. Cohen charges that James Joseph Brown III, a fellow lawyer at the firm, took the cover page and inscribed it with such remarks as "Jewish Princess," "Cool and Kosher!! No pork on those gams!!!" and "But she looks real good in a SKIRT, hence our cover girl this year."Cohen said she went to Masry a number of times to complain about the cover and Brown's attitude, but that Masry laughed it off. Masry maintains that he never saw the defaced cover until later, when the pleadings in Cohen's lawsuit were filed.
Cohen also charges that Brown, in addition to sexually harassing her, frequently called her a JAP (Jewish American Princess). In another incident, she says, Brown pointed to a star of David that Cohen wore around her neck, commenting "in a disparaging tone, 'Why do you have to wear a Jewish star? Are you proud of being a Jew?'"
Brown says he was Cohen's best friend at the office and meant his inscriptions on the cover picture "as a joke."He denies that he sexually harassed Cohen, called her a "JAP" or made comments about her star of David. Brown says that after he left the law firm in October, Cohen retained him to represent a member of her family in a legal matter.
After several months of such friction, both Masry and Cohen agree that he phoned her on Sun., Dec. 26, and fired her, but the reason is, as usual, in dispute.According to Cohen, Masry called her at home and asked her to come to the office. She told him she was caught up with her work and he responded that he didn't need her for work but wanted to see her. She declined, and within the hour, Masry called again and told Cohen she was fired.Masry labels Cohen's version an "unequivocal lie" and said he fired her because she put in too few hours of work at the office, antagonized other employees, and, though she was paid an attorney's salary, had failed to clear the paperwork with the California bar that would permit her to practice as an attorney.Cohen, in turn, describes this interpretation as a lie.
Since her termination, Cohen has applied for a position at several other law firms but has not been hired because, she says, Masry will not give her a letter of reference.Masry asserts that what incenses him most about Cohen's lawsuit is the implication that he discriminated against her because she is Jewish.
He said he has assembled 60 witnesses from across the world to rebut Cohen's allegations, and many of the key ones are Jewish.In addition, he volunteered that "my father was a Christian from Syria who came to the United States in 1912 because of repression in his native country. He was one of the first to give money to Israel in 1948. His sympathies were pro-Zionist, not pro-Arab."