SIGNIFICANT DAMAGES AWARDED IN WORKPLACE SEXUAL HARASSMENT CASE

Sexual Harassement in the work place

A woman who was sexually harassed at work has been awarded $130,000– a significantly higher amount than in previous similar cases.  This case is important because courts now appear willing to award higher payouts in line with community expectations.

Background

The woman, who was based in Sydney, worked for the company in a senior consulting role. She claimed that she had been sexually harassed by the man, who was based in Melbourne, who worked for the same company in a sales role. They were working on a project together which required a number of meetings over many months.

The woman said that the sexual harassment had started from their first meeting and that the man had made inappropriate comments to her, both in the presence of others and also while they were alone together. They included:

“… you and I fight so much … I think we must have been married in our last life.” And “… how do you think our marriage was? I bet the sex was hot.”
“We should go away for a dirty weekend sometime”
“I love your legs in that skirt. I’m going to be thinking about them wrapped around me all day long.”

The woman repeatedly told the man to stop his comments but he persisted.

After some months, she felt that she couldn’t deal with the situation herself and that her work performance was suffering. She made a complaint to her manager and then a formal complaint. She claimed she felt pressured into doing this – all she wanted was to be left alone by the man and not to have anything further to do with him.

The company took about 4 weeks to investigate the matter. During that time, the woman was required to continue working on the same project. She did not see him face to face, but had daily phone conferences with him and others, and communicated with him by email. The woman was diagnosed with a chronic adjustment disorder, with increased stress and anxiety and other physical symptoms.

The man was found by the company to have sexually harassed the woman and so the company gave him a first and final warning, but left him in his current position.

The woman claimed that the company then demoted her – it took her off all Victorian projects and her role was diminished.

She accepted a similar job with another company, but it payed $10,000 per year less.

She made a claim against the company and the man for sexual harassment, as well as various other claims.

Trial

When the case went to trial, the judge found that the woman had been sexually harassed by the man. The judge said that the man’s actions were “cruel and calculated” and “… a systematic form of humiliation and sexually charged aggression.”

It was found that the man’s conduct caused her psychological injury. Even though employers cannot be held responsible for the actions of employees who act outside the scope of their authority, in this case the company didn’t take reasonable steps to prevent the harassment. The company was liable for the employee’s actions.

But even so, the woman was only awarded $18,000 in general damages, which was within the range usually awarded in similar cases. The judge refused to make an award for economic loss (her financial loss).

The woman appealed the case to the Full Federal Court.

Appeal

The Court decided that the damages were so low that they could not properly compensate the woman. Community standards put a higher value than $18,000 on compensation for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.

The Court decided to award $100,000 in damages.

The Court also decided that the woman should be compensated for economic loss – based on the difference between her old and new incomes over a three year period – because there was a direct link between the sexual harassment that she had suffered and her resignation from employment. It awarded her $30,000.

The total compensation was $130,000.

What does it mean?

This case shows an important shift in Court attitudes towards sexual harassment cases. It is an area that has genuine and far-reaching impact on victims, many of whom suffer long term injuries. It is also important to note that even though the woman took many months to make a complaint about the conduct, this did not count against her in the end.

If you have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s important to get legal advice as soon as possible, even if you have not made a complaint. A good lawyer can provide you with valuable advice and assist you to manage the situation in a way that best suits you.

Websters Lawyers have experienced lawyers working in this area and can help you. Contact us today for a free first interview.

Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia Pty Ltd [2014] FCAFC 82 (15 July 2014)

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