Judge OKs jury trial in same-sex battery case

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For the past three years, as Hans C. Ehnert tells it, he has been on a mission for justice, hoping to get compensated for enduring same-sex harassment and battery that nearly ruined his life.

Ehnert, 42, of Washington, a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, worked as a machinist for the Perryman Co., a titanium manufacturer based in Houston, Pa., from 1991-2003.

At first he enjoyed his time at Perryman, and looked forward to a long career at the company. But Ehnert, who is heterosexual, didn’t conform to gender stereotypes at the plant, and said male coworkers eventually picked up on his differences.

Slurs started to be hurled his way, including “pretty boy,” “faggot,” “queer,” “sissy,” “gay boy,” “fruitcake,” “motherfucker,” “cocksucker,” “pervert,” “male whore” and “dumber than a two-day-old nigger,” Ehnert said.

The ringleader of his tormentors was Daniel Kemper, a former supervisor who made his life miserable, Ehnert said.

“He would call me queer, dick-sucker, Hanky poo-poo,” Ehnert claimed. “He asked me if I ever sucked a prettier peter than his. It’s embarrassing to repeat these things.”

Kemper’s attorney, Robert V. Campedel, declined to comment for this story, other than to say: “We deny any liability for whatever is alleged in Mr. Ehnert’s complaint.”

Kemper also declined to comment for this story.

Kemper set a bad example for other coworkers, who followed suit, until the work environment became so hostile that Ehnert had no choice but to stop working at Perryman in April 2003, he said.

He added that after a lengthy period of unemployment, during which he grappled with severe depression, pursued a career in nursing.

But the harassment and unwanted attention continued even after Ehnert left the job, he said, and continues to trouble him to this day.

“A few years ago, Mr. Kemper spotted me entering a local bar and greeted me with a slew of sexually related remarks, things like, ‘Hey, you dick-sucking, queer motherfucker,’” Ehnert said. “Then he kissed me on the lips — quick — to appease me, then followed me into the bar, then started smacking me on the back of the head.”

In February 2006, Ehnert was standing in line at a local convenience store when his composure was tested by Kemper yet again, he said.

Ehnert felt a jab in his rectal area. It was Kemper, who ran his cane up between Ehnert’s legs and poked him in the rear with the tip — activity caught on the store’s video-surveillance camera.

“It was the culmination of a reign of terror that I suffered for about 12 years,” Ehnert said. “I didn’t know what to do. I had a mixture of feelings — revulsion, humiliation.”

After extricating himself from the situation, Ehnert attempted to file a private criminal complaint against Kemper, but local authorities declined to pursue the charges, Ehnert said.

Undaunted, he made sure the incident was included in a lawsuit he filed against Kemper and the Perryman Co. in Washington County Common Pleas Court a few weeks later, alleging a variety of civil violations, including breach of contract, defamation and battery.

Since the cane incident, Ehnert has had no additional contact with Kemper, he said.

Last month, in a six-page ruling, Common Pleas Judge Mark E. Mascara dismissed most of Ehnert’s claims, but retained the battery claim, thereby clearing the way for a jury trial on that allegation.

This week, Ehnert said his “great hope” is that jurors also will be permitted to hear about the workplace harassment he allegedly experienced from Kemper at Perryman.

“My great hope is that we’ll be able to put [the cane incident] into context for a jury,” Ehnert said. “It wasn’t an isolated incident. Jurors won’t be able to make heads or tails out of the case unless they get the whole picture. Otherwise, it would be a miscarriage of justice.”

Other Pennsylvania men with same-sex harassment claims have had disappointing results because judges have ruled that the men were complaining about sexual-orientation bias, which isn’t covered under state or federal law.

Ehnert has taken a different legal approach, because he’s not alleging bias of any kind and he filed his case in state court, not with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Katie R. Eyer, an attorney who’s handled several employment-discrimination cases in the region, expressed support for Ehnert. She also commended Mascara for not focusing on the sexual orientation of Ehnert or Kemper in his ruling.

“I think it’s clear that the court took a thoughtful and sexual-orientation-neutral approach to the consideration of the claims, and analyzed them based on their legal merits, not based on the sexual orientation of the plaintiff or the alleged harasser,” Eyer said.

Ehnert remains optimistic that he’ll prevail in court. “My faith is allowing me to soldier on,” he said.

Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.