A full Federal Court has upheld a decision awarding a former paralegal, Ms Catherin Mia Hill, $170,000 in damages after it found she was subjected to sexual harassment by her former employer and principal of the Beesley and Hughes Lawyers, Mr Owen Hughes.
Over the course of one year, Mr Hughes:
- bombarded Ms Hill with emails professing his love for her and proposing a romantic relationship. Ms Hill repeatedly and clearly rejected his propositions;
- entered Ms Hill’s room during a work trip on two occasions – the first occasion he lay in her bed wearing only his underwear awaiting her return and refused to leave until she gave him a hug – the second occasion he entered while she was in the shower;
- physically prevented Ms Hills from leaving her office unless she first gave him a hug, on multiple occasions; and
- ignored multiple requests that he stop his behaviour which amounted to harassment.
At one point, Mr Hughes effectively told Ms Hill she would not have problems at work if she slept with him, claimed expressing his feelings did not amount to harassment and noted he “always fight the good fight” following reference to her making a complaint or suing him. Ms Hills was psychologically traumatised by his conduct and ultimately resigned because of it.
Mr Hughes obtained confidential and personal information about Ms Hill when he acted for her in a mediation with her former husband. He used this information to threaten Ms Hill to prevent her from making a complaint about his sexual harassment and to attack Ms Hill during the proceedings (in gross breach of his professional obligations as a solicitor). With this information, he was well aware Ms Hills had a pre-existing anxiety disorder.
At first instance, the trial judge found Mr Hughes conduct was outrageous and sexual harassment was established. Mr Hughes was ordered to pay Ms Hill $120,000 in general damages and $50,000 in aggravated damages because of Mr Hughes behaviour at trial.
Mr Hughes appealed and claimed he did not sexually harass Ms Hill but rather that he was “like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice”. His appeal was quashed by a Full Federal Court.
- An abuse of power which leads to psychological trauma may in effect ruin the victim’s quality of life. This would entitle the victim to damages which as seen in this case, can be substantial. In this case, the Court confirmed Mr Hughes conduct was not significantly less egregious than that in Richardson v Oracle and in any event, damages are not be assessed by “performing arithmetic adjustments to prior determinations”.
- A court will consider the role of a perpetrator in addition to any power imbalance when assessing general damages. In this case, the trial judge took into account the fact Mr Hughes was a solicitor who has legal profession privileges, which he abused when he used his status for tawdry personal ends.
- The manner in which a party conducts its case can enliven an award of aggravated damages. Aggravated damages were awarded in this case because Mr Hughes:
- lied during the proceedings;
- tried to pass blame on Ms Hill for his behaviour, claiming she encouraged it with her flirty and coquettish demeanour and alluring dresses with which he could see Ms Hill’s bra and parts of her breasts; and
- used Ms Hill’s confidential and personal information to threaten her against making a complaint and to attack her during the proceedings. By threatening Ms Hills against making a complaint, Mr Hughes demonstrated he was aware his conduct was unlawful.