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Women claim sex harassment in lawsuit

Three women who worked for Matter Bros. furniture stores are accusing four of the Matter brothers of sexual harassment. Among the allegations is that some of the brothers demanded sex in exchange for promotions.

Jonni Lusk, Debra Miller and Linda Sayers each filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Seminole County Circuit Court, saying they were wrongfully fired and recounting numerous instances in which they say they were subjected to sexual harassment.

The claims are untrue, said Stewart Matter (pronounced MAH-ter), president of the company based in Fort Myers. "We feel that this is a scheme to extort money from us," said Matter, 62.

Lusk's suit names the company and Matter's sons, John and Tom. Miller and Sayers name the company and Matter's sons, John, Tom, David and Stewart II.

A fifth son, Gary, also works with the company but was not named in the suits.

John, 31, runs the company's Pinellas Park store; Tom, 32, runs the Tarpon Springs Store; David, 34, and Gary, 29, run the Fort Myers store; and Stewart II, 37, runs the Naples store, Stewart Matter Sr. said.

The suit was filed in Seminole County, the court district where the company used to have a store. The store in Maitland closed a year ago, John Matter said.

The women worked in sales and office positions at the company's Maitland and Pinellas Park stores and in the Clearwater warehouse.

The suits say Lusk, from Clearwater, worked for the company from January 1992 to October 1993; Miller, from Largo, worked from May 1989 through November 1992; and Sayers, from Longwood, worked from August 1989 to March 1993.

None of the women could be reached for comment Thursday.

Claims made in the suits include:

John Matter grabbed Lusk's head and pulled it to his groin area.

John Matter referred to female customers and employees in derogatory and obscene language.

Stewart Matter II kissed Miller against her will.

Thomas Matter told Sayers that if she would "be nice" to him, he would try to get her the manager's job at the Fort Myers store.

David Matter told Sayers that if she would marry him, she might become manager of the Maitland store.

The women claim the company was negligent in training, supervising and continuing to employ the brothers.

John Matter disagreed that the women were wrongfully fired. He said two of the women were fired _ Miller for poor performance and Lusk when he fired his whole sales staff last fall because he thought at the time that he was going to close the store.

He said Sayers quit when he refused to pay her $22,000 she said she was owed in overtime and bonuses. He said he believes Sayers recruited the other two to file lawsuits, promising them easy money.

"These girls have absolutely nothing to lose," said John Matter, who estimated the women to all be in their 30s.

John Matter said he was friends with some of his employees, going out to dinner or drinking with them and kissing them on the cheek or giving them a hug or a pat on the back.

He and his father said the company will fight in court rather than pay a settlement.

Tom, David and Stewart Matter II did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The Tarpon Springs and Pinellas Park stores advertised going-out-of-business sales last fall. John Matter said they each closed briefly then reopened in the same locations, under a different corporate name but with the same "Matter Bros." signs on the stores.

He said the stores cut operating costs while they were closed.