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By Portner Press on June 24th, 2019
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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.

How would you deal with a sexual harassment claim?

Do you know exactly what constitutes sexual harassment and what you can be liable for?

Could you prove that you did everything possible to prevent your employees from engaging in unlawful behaviour?

Find out by reading chapter S2 Sexual Harassment and Victimisation in the Employment Law Practical Handbook.

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