The boss of a law firm based on the Northern Rivers of New South Wales has been ordered to pay $170,000 in damages for a “relentless” campaign of sexual harassment against a former employee.
The harassment included threatening emails suggesting that the woman’s job would be at risk if she did not agree to a relationship with him.
He was in her room wearing boxer shorts
Catherine Hill took the legal action against Owen Hughes (pictured above), a principal of law firm Beesley and Hughes, for sexual harassment over a series of sexual advances including bombarding her with emails, and an incident during a work trip where she found Mr Owen in her bedroom wearing a singlet and boxer shorts.
Ms Hill started working as a paralegal and later as a solicitor for Mr Hughes from May 2015.
Conduct ‘particularly sinister’
In the Federal Circuit Court, Judge Salvatore Vasta described Hughes’ conduct as “relentless” and had taken advantage of Ms Hill’s vulnerability, as she had recently split with her husband and was training as a lawyer to help support her children.
He said the employment relationship between the pair made his repeated advances “particularly sinister”.
The court was told that Mr Hughes blocked Ms Hill’s exit from the office a number of times, and repeatedly requested hugs.
On a work trip to Sydney, the two stayed at the home of Mr Hughes’ brother, during which Ms Hill said she walked in on Mr Hughes in the bedroom assigned to her, wearing only a singlet and boxer shorts.
Mr Hughes had claimed in court that it was “a very hot night” and as as result, could not sleep on the verandah as planned.
He maintained this claim even when it was pointed out to him that the trip was “in the middle of winter”.
Threat to employment
Judge Vasta noted that a number of the emails Mr Hughes sent to Miss Hill were “quite threatening”, including a September 2015 email which said:
“I know you might decide that we should just have a working relationship but I need someone.
“All cool if you want to just work for me … at the end of the day you would have a Ukrainian woman working for me as well as you and you might be sorry you turned me down romantically.”
Judge Vasta interpreted this as a threat that Ms Hill would be “replaced as an employee by [a] Ukrainian woman” who would be romantically involved with Mr Hughes.
Another email could only be interpreted as a threat that Ms Hill’s work was “substandard but it could be overlooked if she were in a sexual relationship with him”.
Claims of flirting and substandard work ‘utterly outrageous’
Judge Vasta criticised Mr Hughes’ attempts to blame Ms Hill for the harassment by suggesting that she was “flirty and coquettish”.
While Ms Hill characterised such comments as “slut-shaming”, Judge Vasta did not, instead describing Mr Hughes’ claims as “utterly outrageous”.
“It is the mark of a bygone era where women, by their mere presence, were responsible for the reprehensible behaviour of men,” he said.
Judge Vasta awarded Ms Hill $170,000 including a record $50,000 in aggravated damages.
Day of reckoning coming for legal profession
Industrial relations specialist Miles Heffernan warned the day is coming when the legal profession will be hit with a wave of law suits relating to sexual misconduct.
“The legal profession is yet to have its own #MeToo moment, but that day is coming,” Mr Heffernan said.
“Many in the industry are extremely reluctant to come forward and make formal complaints because they fear it will be a career killer – that they will never work again.
“But all workers, whether they be truck drivers, nurses, clerical staff or young lawyers should know that they don’t have to put up with unlawful sexual harassment, and as this case proves, you can do something about it.”
If you have experienced sexual harassment, or sex discrimination, you may be entitled to compensation.
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