After 10 quiet years as an accountant, Pamela E. Long wanted to run away and join the circus. And when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus wouldn't have her, she sued.
Now, the Laurel woman is balancing on a legal high wire. The circus alleges she is making "audacious . . . and meritless" claims, while Ms. Long insists she is fighting for the rights of women.
A federal district judge in Baltimore dismissed her case. Ms. Long says she is appealing the dismissal because the circus' earlier settlement offer didn't include the value of the job's fringe benefits.
Local attorneys say that if Judge John Hargrove's dismissal is upheld, it could reduce the amount that discrimination victims can get in settlements. It might also make it easier for employers to get discrimination cases dismissed.
"This could cause some notoriety," said A. Samuel Cook, a labor lawyer in Baltimore, who is not involved in the case.
It all started in June 1989, when Ms. Long saw a job notice for an accountant fluent in Japanese to run the finances of the Ringling Bros. Far East tour.
Ms. Long, a Japanese-American accountant who is fluent in Japanese, thought it was an answer to a dream. She had always loved the circus and she had always wanted to work in Japan.
So she called the employment agency listed on the advertisement and went in for an interview.
The woman who interviewed her "seemed very positive" because of Ms. Long's perfect Japanese, master's degree in business administration and more than 10 years of experience in accounting, Ms. Long said.
But the next day, Ms. Long said, the woman called her back. "They wouldn't even grant me an interview. . . . She said, 'They don't want to hire you because you are a woman' " and would not be respected or safe in Japan.
"At first I was shocked. Then I was enraged," she said. And the next morning she filed a discrimination charge against the circus at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
After more than a year's investigation, the EEOC backed Ms. Long's charge and asked the two sides to negotiate a settlement.
Vienna, Va.-based Ringling Bros. denied it discriminated and said it hired a more qualified male. The company noted that the job Ms. Long kept in lieu of joining the circus paid almost as well. Ringling offered her the difference in salary -- $1,400 -- and up to $5,000 in attorney's fees.
The EEOC backed the settlement offer as fair, but Ms. Long refused it.
She argued that the circus had advertised that the new road controller would get free room, board and use of a car as the circus traveled, and she wanted the value of those benefits.
Unable to agree, the two sides went to court. Before they started arguing over whether Ms. Long had actually been discriminated against, Judge Hargrove dismissed the case.
"Allowances for food, lodging and transportation are not
considered back pay," and the court should not bother with the case because Ms. Long had already refused an offer that would match what the court could award if she won, Judge Hargrove ruled.
(The settlement offer was smaller than a similar offer might be today because Ms. Long was not covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which allows victims of discrimination to seek compensatory and punitive damages, as well as back pay.)
Ringling's attorney, Jeanne Phelan, contends that the circus offered Ms. Long some money during negotiations only to save a legal wrangle. She said the judge's ruling should stand and that a judge should throw out cases in which plaintiffs have refused a reasonable settlement.
"It doesn't seem to make any sense to take several months and thousands of dollars to get to the same point" that Ms. Long previously rejected, Ms. Phelan said.
But labor lawyers are divided over whether fringe benefits ought to be included in back pay awards and whether the case should have been so quickly dismissed.
For her part, Ms. Long's attorney, Mindy Farber, said she's only ++ charging Ms. Long a portion of her costs because she's worried about the precedent the ruling will set if upheld.
Previous courts have ruled that fringe benefits can be part of the back pay awards, she said.
And if the dismissal is upheld on appeal, future victims of discrimination will be forced to accept settlement offers for fear of losing everything if they go to court, she said.
"That is a 'Let's Make A Deal' proposition. You've got to take what is behind the curtain or what is in their hands," Ms. Farber said. "That is good for a quiz show, but in a court of law it is inappropriate."