FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ As a bank teller, Clara Watson says she endured slights from coworkers and slurs from white customers who said they didn't want a black person counting their money.

But when she was passed over four times for promotion, she started a legal battle that has reached the nation's capital.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in a case that attorneys say could be a civil rights landmark, changing the way employers hire and advance workers.

Ms. Watson, however, only wanted a promotion to supervisor at Fort Worth Bank & Trust, where she had worked for eight years when she asked attorney Art Brender in 1981 to take her case.

In the years since, Brender has put together a four-year statistical study which he says proves the bank discriminated against blacks and used subjective hiring and promotion criteria to thwart their progress.

Bruce McGee, who represents Fort Worth Bank & Trust, now MBank East, said it his firm's policy to not comment on pending cases.

The Supreme Court has ruled that statistics can be used to prove discrimination when it comes to objective criteria for hiring and promotions, such as whether a test or physical requirement discriminates against a minority group.

The high court, however, has not addressed the question of subjective criteria in discrimination cases.

Nine of the nation's 12 U.S. circuit courts of appeal have allowed the use of subjective decisions in proving discrimination cases, but the 5th Circuit, where Ms. Watson took her case after losing in U.S. District Court in 1986, has not.

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Ms. Watson could force employers to abandon all subjective criteria in hiring and promotions, using solely objective tests or basing their decisions on racial or sexual percentages that reflect the makeup of the applicant pool, attorneys say.

Since she filed her lawsuit, Ms. Watson said she has changed jobs, been divorced, lost friends and suffered kidney failure. She is on a waiting list for a kidney transplant and undergoes dialysis at her home in suburban Euless four times a day.

She has been on disability leave since May 1987 from American Airlines, where she cleaned airplane cabins. She believes the switch from an office job to manual labor contributed to her failing health.

''It's a big difference, having to wear overalls vs. a dress and heels. ... Every morning you have to slap yourself in the face to get started,'' the 39-year-old woman said Thursday.

She was 25 when she was hired at the State Bank of East Fort Worth, the fifth black working at the bank that served a large number of blacks, she said.

The other black employees were a maid, a custodian and two women who printed checks, she said.

At Christmas parties, blacks had a separate table at the rear of the room, and when she became the bank's first black teller, she said she heard employees say such things as: ''That's an awful lot of money for blacks to be counting.''

''When I first made teller, I had to take a lot of racial slurs from customers and when I complained to management they did absolutely nothing about it. Every day I had to deal with being called black ... They'd say: 'I don't want a black dealing with my money ...' I had a lot of determination.''

Ms. Watson started out balancing canceled checks from depositors, and after three years was named a motor bank teller. Three years later, in 1979, she went inside the bank as a teller and later that year was named a commercial teller.

When the positions of supervisor of tellers and motor bank supervisor came open in 1980 and again in 1981, Ms. Watson was turned down for all four promotions, losing out, she contends, to people with less experience or shorter tenures at the bank.

According to a legal brief, one of those chosen over Ms. Watson was a 20- year-old man who had been at the bank little over a year. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, later receiving EEOC permission to sue.

She was on disability leave at the time, recovering from a severe foot injury, and decided not to return to the bank.

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The case is Clara B. Watson vs. Fort Worth Bank & Trust, No. 86-6139.