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Solicitor ordered to pay employee $170,000 for ‘sinister’ sexual harassment

A solicitor has been ordered to pay $170,000 in damages to a female employee he subjected  to “relentless” sexual harassment.

Owen Hughes, the principal at Beesley and Hughes in northern NSW, made numerous sexual  advances towards his employee over several months. These included bombarding her with emails, blocking her exit and coercing her to hug him on a number of  occasions and once entering her bedroom in his underwear while on a work trip.

Some of his emails included veiled threats that her employment depended upon her entering a  sexual relationship with him.

Part of one email stated:

“I want to be your  lover and I do know how to be friend with you.

The way it is you need  to show me you will get there work wise.

I can do a full staff  assessment if you like.

To be honest I can see  you would get there like in a timeframe I  can live with if I was at full speed  and we were lovers but your work  output is not there otherwise.

Just look at what you achieve and it will not pay the bills and make me a profit on any view I am  afraid.

That is the harsh reality of business.

I need a lover and well if it is not you well…see my other emails.”

In a  previous email he had written:

“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 about at the end of the  day you have would have a Ukrainian woman working for me as well as  you and you might be sorry you turned me down romantically.”

Federal  Circuit Court Judge Salvatore Vasta found that the principal’s actions were “the  very conduct that the law of sexual harassment seeks to eliminate”.

“The conduct  of [Mr Hughes] was relentless. He took advantage of the vulnerability of [the  employee] in announcing ‘his feelings’ for her during a time that he was  actually acting as her ‘legal representative’. He had no regard to the position  in which [the employee] found herself but proceeded to act according to his own desires as if they were the only things that truly mattered,” Judge Vasta said.

“Having been  told by [the employee] that she wanted to only have a ‘working relationship’  with him, [Mr Hughes] attempted to manufacture a situation in Sydney where he  could begin a sexual relationship with [the employee].

“He coerced  physical contact with her, in the form of hugs, which he  knew could never be  appropriate in a workplace. This is especially so when he is in the position of  employer and she is an employee whom he  knows is desperate to keep her job.

“His emails  speak for themselves but it is the intertwining of [the employee’s] position in  [Mr Hughes’] employment and the desire of [Mr  Hughes] to have a sexual relationship with [the employee] that is particularly sinister. The threats that he made would have been  extremely distressing.

“Whilst I  accept that there was nothing crude, vulgar or lascivious about the harassment,  nevertheless it was obviously unwarranted, persistent and threatening.

“Considering  all that [the employee] endured, it is little wonder that she has suffered the  psychiatric injury described in the medical evidence,” Judge Vasta said.

Mr Hughes attempted to blame the employee for his conduct, suggesting that she was “flirty and coquettish” because she had worn “alluring dresses” where he could see “her bra and part of her breasts when looking at the neckline in her dress”.

Mr Hughes said that this was “encouraging” his behaviour.

Judge Vasta  found these claims to be “utterly outrageous”.

“It is the  mark of a bygone era where women, by their mere presence, were responsible for  the reprehensible behaviour of men. The Sex Discrimination Act was enacted to help eliminate this sort of thinking,”  Judge Vasta said.

Mr Hughes was ordered to pay the employee a total of $170,000, which included a record  $50,000 in aggravated damages.

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