Erin Brockovich law firm accused of anti-Semitism

LOS ANGELES — Kissandra Cohen had everything going for her.

Possessing a sky-high IQ, she had finished law school by the age of 20 and was heading toward an MBA degree.

But today Cohen is out of a job, can't get a new one, and has filed a voluminous lawsuit against the law firm made famous in the film "Erin Brockovich."

In the suit, she details what she claims are incidents of anti-Jewish discrimination and sexual harassment.

Early last year, while still at Loyola Law School, Cohen was hired as a law clerk by the firm of Masry & Vititoe in Westlake Village, near Los Angeles.

In September, while the results of her bar examination were still out, partner Edward 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."

Cohen's lawsuit, 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 country's movie screens about the same time.

Based on an actual case, the film depicts Brockovich getting her teeth into a case that accused PG&E of polluting the ground water near its plant in Hinkley, 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 — Masry has filed his own lawsuit accusing Cohen of slander — and adds to the case's complexity.

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. Cohen cited more than 20 specific incidents.

The 21-year-old Cohen presents a picture of the 67-year-old Masry as a man fixated on female breasts and who hired and paid women employees, including a Playboy model, for their looks and other physical endowments.

In addition, Cohen filed charges of 10 counts of sexual harassment against two other lawyers in the firm.

In her brief, Cohen says that "Brockovich and others had implied (to Cohen) or claimed outright at various times that Masry and Brockovich 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 religious discrimination. She claims 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 revolves around a graduation issue published last June by the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, 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 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 maintains that 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.

Both Masry and Cohen say that after several months of such friction, he phoned her on Dec. 26 and fired her. But the reason is 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 on 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 says 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, she had failed to clear the paperwork with the California bar that would permit her to practice as an attorney.

Cohen, in turn, describes this version as a lie.

Since her termination, Cohen has applied for positions 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 to rebut Cohen's allegations, and many of the key ones are Jewish.

In addition, he said, "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."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent