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Jury's Verdict Expected Today in Erulkar Harassment Suit

By Brian Rosenberg
Editor in Chief

Jury deliberations began yesterday in the harassment suit that Marina R. Erulkar SM '92 has brought against Professor of Management Gabriel R. Bitran and MIT. A verdict is expected sometime today.

Erulkar claims Bitran sexually harassed her by kissing her while she worked in his office at the Sloan School of Management, that he probed excessively into her personal life, and that MIT was responsible for his actions and did not respond properly when she filed a complaint against Bitran.

The deliberations began after attorneys for all three parties gave their closing arguments, and Judge Elizabeth Butler instructed the jury in the applicable law.

In his closing, Robert Sullivan, MIT's attorney, attempted to discredit Erulkar's testimony. He pointed out ways in which he felt her description of events had changed since she first filed a complaint against Bitran. He also reminded the jury that Erulkar admitted overstating the cost of her medical expenses on an MIT financial aid form in order to get money to pay for her visits to a psychiatrist.

Bitran's attorney, John Kahn, focused on the idea that the relationship between Erulkar and Bitran was a mutually beneficial one. He suggested that Erulkar's reaction to Bitran's actions did not cause any change in her work status, as she continued on most of the projects she had been working on previously. He also said the events immediately leading up to Erulkar's filing of a complaint on June 5, 1990 were not sexual in nature, and that her complaint could not then be for sexual harassment.

Barbara Johnson, Erulkar's lawyer, described Erulkar's experiences as a "betrayal of trust, both by Bitran and by MIT." She also claimed that MIT was trying to cover up many aspects of the situation. To support this, she cited the fact that notebooks prepared for the case by MIT<\p>officials were prepared months after the events described in them took place. Judge Butler instructed the jury, however, that the time of the notebooks' creation should not be a factor in deciding their weight in the case.

Johnson said that while the professional relationship between Bitran and Erulkar may have been beneficial, it was his personal actions that caused her so much grief and anguish. She also said that the experience Erulkar lost as a result of not working for Bitran left her unable to find a job after graduating from Sloan.

To rule in favor of Erulkar, Butler instructed, at least 11 of the 13 jurors must find that Bitran, MIT, or both violated at least one of two Massachusetts statutes. The first, Chapter 151b, prohibits sexual harassment which is "so severe and pervasive that it creates a humiliating, hostile, or sexually offensive atmosphere in the workplace."

The second, Chapter 93, prohibits an employer from refusing to enter into a contract or otherwise changing the contractual relationship with an employee because of the employee's gender.

The burden of proof for the jury's decision is lower than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" that applies in criminal cases. To rule for Erulkar in this civil suit, the jury needs only to find that a "fair preponderance of the evidence" supports her claims, Butler said.

To rule that Bitran sexually harassed Erulkar, the jury must find that a "reasonable person" in her place would have found that his actions created a work environment matching the description in Chapter 151b. To find that MIT is responsible for his actions, the jury must conclude that MIT either assisted in or contributed to the creation of that environment, or that MIT delegated decisions about Erulkar's employment to Bitran.

If the jury finds either Bitran or MIT in violation of the law, it can decide to award compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are intended to "restore the victim to the financial situation she would have been in" if Bitran's behavior had not occurred, Butler said.

Punitive damages may be awarded if the jury finds that Bitran's or MIT's actions were "outrageous," Butler instructed. Punitive damages are intended to deter similar action in the future. Butler indicated that there would be a $20,000 cap on the amount of punitive damages that could be assessed against MIT because of its status as a non-profit organization.