Hill v Hughes Sexual Harassment

Hill v Hughes [2019] FCCA 1267

In May 2019 the Federal Circuit Court awarded damages to an employee in the sum of $170,000, which included $50,000 in aggravated damages.  While there have been larger monetary awards for sexual harassment, this is the largest amount awarded for aggravated damages, which require an additional element of malevolence, or spite, or ill will, by the harasser. The Court may also, as it did here, consider how the harasser’s behaviour up to, and during, the hearing have contributed to the victim’s distress and hurt.

The harassment in this case was inflicted by Owen Hughes, the principal of a small law firm located just south of Byron Bay.  The victim was his firm’s paralegal, Catherine Hill.  Ms Hill is a single-mother who had recently completed her legal training and was tied to the Northern Rivers region because it was near her child’s father, her ex-partner.  Judge Vasta described Ms Hill as being “socially and individually vulnerable.”

In that context, the Court found that Mr Hughes had engaged in repeated, unwanted, conduct of a sexual nature toward Ms Hill, which included:

  • coerced hugs,
  • entering and remaining in her room while she wore a towel (on a work-related trip to Sydney),
  • lying on a bed in her room, wearing only a singlet and boxer shorts, and
  • incessant emails containing ‘romantic’ propositions (including many poor attempts at the French language[6]), which were clearly unrequited.

Mr Hughes made threats (albeit veiled) toward Ms Hill in his capacity as her employer.  Those threats were initially that he would terminate her employment if she did not accede to his advances.  Over time, the threats of dismissal became linked to any complaint that Ms Hill might choose to file.

The Court was also appalled at Mr Hughes’s abuse of his position as Ms Hill’s legal representative in her unrelated family law matter.  In that capacity, Mr Hughes gained access to privileged material, which he used in these sexual harassment proceedings, in an apparent attempt to defame her character and blacken her name.

All of these circumstances, including Ms Hill’s unique vulnerabilities, and Ms Hill’s chronic psychiatric condition as a result of Mr Hughes’s conduct, caused the Court to order $50,000 in aggravated damages, plus $120,000 in general damages, in Ms Hill’s favour.

Judge Vasta also took the opportunity to slam Mr Hughes and his archaic view that Ms Hill had encouraged his actions by her perfume, her dresses, and her supposedly ‘flirty and coquettish’ behaviour.  His Honour said:

“It is a 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.”

Appeal – Hughes trading as Beesley and Hughes Lawyers v Hill [2020] FCAFC 126 (24 July 2020)

On 24 July 2020, The Full Court of the Federal Court dismissed an appeal brought by lawyer Owen Hughes that he had sexual harassed his employed paralegal.

The earlier judgment ordered Mr Hughes to pay damages of $120,000, plus $50,000 in aggravated damages, based on his conduct throughout the proceedings.

In dismissing Mr Hughes’s appeal, the Court considered the lawyer’s submission that his actions were not sexual harassment, but were more akin to romantic notions of ‘Mr Darcy’.

Justice Perram confirmed that such a submission was ‘delusional’. His Honour emphasised: ‘The facts of this case are about as far from a Jane Austen novel as it is possible to be.’

Hill v Hughes Sexual Harassment – Lessons for employers

1. Get training before you need investigations
2. Train your staff so that they understand what sexual harassment is (you would be surprised how many perpetrators I have met who denied their actions were sexual harassment when they obviously were, as in this case)
3. Train your staff about the importance of not being a by-standing doing nothing, report & support
4.. Train your HR staff or managers so that they are able to conduct timely and professional investigations into complaints of sexual harassment.  In this way you will have a trusted reporting and investigation process in place.

AWPTI can help – You WANT our training before you NEED investigations 

We can provide  training for your employee – click here for details
We can provide training for your HR team – Click here for details

Please contact us enquiries@awpti.com.au or on 02 9674 4279 if you would like more information or would like to book a course.

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