Five people have come forward, including three young women, from Richard Palmer’s workplaces to paint a picture of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior spanning nearly three years.
The allegations were raised in a ruling by the Employment Relations Authority nearly three years ago, but now the Lawyers and Conveyancers Tribunal – which assesses the fitness of legal professionals to practice – has found him guilty of multiple misconduct charges.
The first charge relates to a 2015 incident while working for the law firm Anderson Lloyd, where Palmer took two paralegals for lunch at a BYO restaurant. After an hour or more, the two women began to receive text messages from co-workers asking where they were and both were eager to get back to work.
However, Palmer, who is currently listed as a consultant on the Christchurch Saunders & Co law firm website, took them to another venue to buy stronger liquor which the two women poured when he wasn’t looking. not.
He then drove them back to the office parking lot and instead of returning to work, he drove the two women to drink at another location nearby and reassured them that they could blame him for being late.
The court noted that both women were summer clerks and intended to make a good impression in the hope that they would be hired when they graduated.
On the way to the bar was an adult sex shop that had received media coverage when other businesses objected to its opening in the neighborhood. Palmer took the two women inside and started talking to the salesman.
Both women said they felt uncomfortable and “strange” about the situation and Palmer obtained business cards from the store assistant and gave them to the clerks.
They went to the last place where they drank some more before returning to the office around 5 p.m.
“Both were very upset not only with how the afternoon had gone, but also with the fact that they would be looked down upon for coming back to the office so late, and a little less well,” said the court in its decision released today. .
The women described feeling pressured to go along with whatever Palmer suggested due to the power imbalance between them as a summer clerk and him as a senior member of the company.
“We view Mr. Palmer’s apparent lack of awareness of this dynamic as reprehensible,” the court said.
“He also made them drink alcohol, having taken them to a place where it was not easy for them to “escape”, which he then insisted that they consume more alcohol in two other locations and engaged in the highly inappropriate activity of taking them to an adult sex shop.
“We definitely consider that his behavior would be viewed by well-meaning members of the profession as disgraceful and dishonorable.”
Anderson Lloyd informed Palmer two days after lunch that the situation would be investigated and suspended him from office. His employment with the company ended shortly after the incident.
In another incident in 2017 while working for Duncan Cotteril at a lunch where “a large amount of alcohol was consumed”, Palmer leaned close to a woman, patted her knee and stroked her hair and shoulder. When she moved the seats away from him, he followed her.
The woman, an intermediate lawyer, likened the behavior to “something a father might do”, but was inappropriate between a senior colleague and an employee. She said it made her particularly uncomfortable.
“We consider that repeatedly touching a junior colleague on her knee, leg or shoulder and stroking her hair goes far beyond the limits of merely unacceptable conduct and again reaches the standard of disgraceful and dishonorable conduct” , concluded the court.
Another accusation relates to a series of emails between Palmer and a first-year attorney at the firm.
He suggested she take him to dinner in an email sent at 9 p.m. the same evening when inappropriate touching occurred with another lawyer.
The content of some of the emails is alleged to have contained sexual innuendo and inappropriate references, and Palmer said they were jokes that were an attempt at humor that fell flat.
“I promise not to bite. Well, not hard,” one of the emails read.
The court said Palmer was careful to point out the context that led to the initial invitation to meet the woman who had decided to leave the company and said catching her up socially, away from the company, was to reinforce his self-esteem. .
“The level of persistence in Mr. Palmer’s attempts to secure dinner with Ms. X, as evidenced by the emails themselves, once again shows a lack of insight or disregard for the power imbalance between the practitioner and a young female staff member,” the court heard. said.
The woman raised the emails with HR during her exit interview with the company and the matter was escalated to the HR manager.
The court also found that the contact was concerning because two primary partners had met Palmer and raised the issue of his drinking in the workplace.
They had also raised with him concerns expressed by other partners about Palmer’s treatment of younger female colleagues and what was seen as a propensity to invite such colleagues over for lunch or coffee.
Several other alcohol-related charges were dismissed by the court.
“The evidence from the five plaintiffs in this case clearly shows the vulnerability of junior staff who are acutely aware of the need to be seen in a positive light by potential or actual employers,” the court said.
“Almost all of the witnesses we heard from expressed extreme concern about the potential negative effects these complaints could have on their future prospects.”
A penalty hearing has yet to be scheduled by the court.
– Jeremy Wilkinson, reporter for Open Justice