Two years ago, Robert C. Clowers, a deputy in a Houston law enforcement office, was accused by a female subordinate of sexual harassment, among other things. In television and newspaper interviews, the woman, Miriam Willis, said he had run his hands up and down her legs and wrapped his arms around her.
Clowers fought back, saying the accusations in Willis's suit were false and countersuing for defamation.In November a federal jury awarded him $3 million.
"I may never see a cent, but at least I got my name cleared," he said in an interview last week. Willis, who declined to be interviewed, has filed a motion for a new trial.
The case is an example, albeit extreme, of another side of the sexual harassment debate.
If the recent $7.1 million jury verdict against the law firm Baker & MacKenzie in San Francisco - a case in which a senior partner was accused of physically harassing a secretary, including grabbing her breast - shows how blatant workplace sexual harassment can be, the Clowers suit underscores the pitfalls of believing every accusation of sexual impropriety against a supervisor.
Just as sexual harassment complaints have multiplied in the wake of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, lawyers and employers say, more men - guilty and innocent - are fighting back by filing lawsuits. And sometimes they are winning.
"Now that the initial hysteria over Hill-Thomas has matured, there's a very discernible effort on the part of men who are feeling arbitrarily treated or wrongly accused to bring litigation to clear their name," said Vic Schachter, a San Francisco employment lawyer who says he has seen a half dozen such cases this year at companies he represents. That is not surprising, he says, given the stigma of the accusation and the stepped up enforcement of federal laws requiring harassment-free workplaces.
Harsh Luthar, a professor of labor relations at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., agreed: "The assumption with sexual harassment today seems to be that a man is guilty if he has been accused."
Some people say these suits are intended to intimidate women who are already fearful of speaking up. Susan Webb, a consultant in Seattle, says most of the complaints she has helped employers investigate are legitimate.
"Where there's smoke, you usually find there's fire," she said.
Still, Webb said, the evolving definition of harassment can lead to misunderstandings. Where quid pro quo sexual harassment tends to be clear cut, litigation now revolves around what constitutes a hostile work environment. Determining when language and actions are offensive is more subjective.
There are no reliable statistics on questionable claims or counter-suits. Last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission resolved 10,000 sexual harassment complaints and found 3,300 without merit. But "no merit" does not necessarily mean a complaint is untrue, said a commission spokesman, Reginald Welch.
The claim might fall under a different statute, or be a case where the agency could not find enough evidence. It can also simply be a matter of miscommunication.