Nine minutes after receptionist Tamara Klopfenstein complained - for the second time - about getting her bosses coffee, she was fired.

"I don't expect to serve and wait on you by making and serving you coffee every day," Klopfenstein e-mailed to her boss at National Sales & Supply L.L.C., of Bensalem.

Manager Jason Shrager told her the issue wasn't "open for debate."

Instead, the issue caused a brouhaha in federal court.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller couldn't resist punning his way through a decision on the deeper issue - whether Klopfenstein's managers had created a hostile and discriminatory work environment by requiring the receptionist to fetch them coffee.

He wrote that she had no grounds for her complaints of sexual discrimination.

Please pour Judge Schiller decaf before he puns again.

"The act of getting coffee is not, by itself, a gender-specific act," Schiller wrote. The fact that a vice president wrote "looks nice, dresses well," on notes when she was hired also doesn't add up to discrimination, the judge wrote.

"While the behavior of plaintiff's supervisors may have been rude, gauche, or undesirable, their actions do not violate federal or state antidiscrimination laws," Schiller wrote.

Klopfenstein, who worked at the company for six weeks in 2006, plans to appeal, said her attorney, Timothy M. Kolman, of Langhorne.

If to-coffee-or-not-to-coffee is the question, the answer depends, like many workplace issues, on interpersonal dynamics, say Philadelphia-area administrators, echoing the opinion of workplace experts.

In other words, if people respect one another and work as partners, coffee is no big deal. It's all in how they are asked.

Yeah, right, snorted Hannah Seligson, author of New Girl on the Job, which came out in paperback in April.

"I think it's a little precious to say you'll only get coffee if you are asked in a way that feels good for you," she said. "There are a million other girls who want your job. The economy is tough. Are you going to jeopardize your job for a cup of coffee?"

The trick, she said, is to walk the fine line between being helpful and being sidelined as the office sweetie who makes the coffee and plans the birthday parties. "I caution women not to fall into that trap."

That's when job-negotiating skills count, said author Dondi Scumaci, a former bank teller who became a banking vice president and has written Designed for Success: The 10 Commandments for Women in the Workplace.

First of all, she said, pick your battles.

Second, bring something more to the job, no matter how low you are on the totem pole. Then, after a while, if getting coffee feels demeaning, it'll be easier to ask for a change.

Mostly, the coffee issue percolates below the surface.

"I don't think it is as prevalent as it used to be," said Nicole Piccoli, senior division manager of the Center City location of OfficeTeam, a staffing company.

"Their roles are a little more different," she said. "I think [the bosses] would be more happy to have our temps put together a presentation for them than to get a cup of coffee."

But, she said, if getting the boss a cup of coffee is what the job demands, her temps will do it. Some of them are angling for full-time jobs.

Audrey Jackson, an administrative assistant at an engineering firm in Center City, doesn't mind the coffee.

"I would do anything for my boss except sleep with him, because he's married," she said.

Edward J. Coryell, head of the carpenters' union in Philadelphia, never asked his longtime assistant for coffee, even when he drank it.

But his assistant, Maureen McGovern, sometimes finds herself bringing coffee to visitors.

"I'm not opposed to it, but I don't like it," she said. "If it's black, that's an easy one, but I'm not doing any skinny mocha lattes with soy."

Mary Anne Gabuzda works for Villanova women's basketball coach Harry Perretta and used to work for Villanova's revered men's coach, Rollie Massimino. Perretta doesn't drink coffee, but she used to bring it - with Sweet'n Low - for Massimino. "It's not that big a deal for me," she said.

It's not a big deal for lawyer Frank Rothermel, either. Every day, he froths cappuccino for a paralegal who works for another lawyer in his office. When the machine breaks, she brings him coffee. Rothermel said he would never ask an assistant to get him coffee. "I think that's taboo," he said.

Brian Jackson, the Harrisburg lawyer who represented National Sales & Supply in federal court, said he never asks his assistant for coffee - mainly because he likes to get out of the office.

Jackson, naturally, agreed with the judge's ruling that there was no discrimination at National Sales. To show discrimination, Klopfenstein would have had to be able to point to a male worker with a similar status who didn't have to get coffee.

But the previous receptionists were all women and didn't object to getting coffee for vice presidents Jay Shrager and Richard Blum, Jackson said.

Shrager and Blum did not return calls to their office to discuss the case.

After they fired her, Klopfenstein said in depositions, she became angry and depressed.

Blum and Shrager, the Levittown woman said, "took, basically, the entire job as a joke and . . . fired me because I didn't bring them coffee at a certain time. . . . They had no idea that I needed that job as much as I did."

Coffee Clash

Plaintiff: Tamara Klopfenstein of Levittown

Defendant: National Sales & Supply L.L.C., of Bensalem.

The Case

Klopfenstein joined National Sales as a receptionist and data-entry clerk in 2006.

Two executives ordered her to bring them coffee daily at 3 p.m.

Klopfenstein refused and was fired.

She sued for discrimination and harassment.

She lost in court on

June 5.

Judge's comment: "While the behavior of plaintiff's supervisors may have been rude, gauche, or undesirable, their actions do not violate federal or state antidiscrimination laws." What's next? Klopfenstein plans to appeal.

SOURCE: Court documents

EndText

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.