New Zealand Law Society - Lawyer found to have engaged in misconduct by behaving inappropriately with younger female colleagues

Lawyer found to have engaged in misconduct by behaving inappropriately with younger female colleagues

Behaviour which broadly fell under the heading of sexual harassment has led to three findings of misconduct for Christchurch lawyer Richard Dean Palmer. The Lawyers and Conveyancers Disciplinary Tribunal (the Tribunal) found that Mr Palmer’s conduct towards young female colleagues on three separate occasions was disgraceful and dishonourable. Three other charges were dismissed (one because it was an omnibus charge and thus was redundant to the three findings of misconduct).

The first incident occurred in 2015 and involved Mr Palmer taking two female summer clerks to lunch while working at law firm Anderson Lloyd. Mr Palmer brought two bottles of wine, which the group drunk over an extended lunch. As the lunch went on, the clerks began to receive messages from the office asking when they would return. They raised this with Mr Palmer who said they could blame him. Once the lunch was finished, the group went to a bar where Mr Palmer purchased spirits for him and the clerks. Enroute to a third location, Mr Palmer saw a sex shop which he had read about and entered, with the two clerks following. Inside, Mr Palmer chatted to the shop assistant for at least five minutes and gave a business card to each clerk. They then went to another bar for a drink before eventually returning the office around 5pm. Both clerks were upset by how the afternoon had progressed and concerned that they may have damaged their chances at getting a graduate position by being absent for such a long period. The Tribunal found this incident amounted to misconduct and would be considered disgraceful and dishonourable by right-thinking members of the profession given the power imbalance between Mr Palmer and the clerks, the level of alcohol consumption encouraged by Mr Palmer and the highly inappropriate visit to the sex shop.

The second incident occurred in 2017 when Mr Palmer was working at law firm Duncan Cotterill and hosted a client lunch along with an intermediate solicitor. A large amount of alcohol was consumed at lunch. While seated at the table, Mr Palmer lent in towards the solicitor in a way that made her feel uncomfortable and patted her on the knee several times and stroked her hair and shoulder. When the solicitor attempted to move seats to get away, Mr Palmer moved to sit beside her. The Tribunal described the touching as overly familiar, unconsented and unwelcome and found touching a junior female colleague in this manner went beyond unacceptable conduct and reached the standard of disgraceful and dishonourable. 

The third incident also occurred in 2017 while Mr Palmer was at Duncan Cotterill. It involved a lengthy series of emails between Mr Palmer and a first-year solicitor. Mr Palmer made numerous requests to have coffee with the solicitor and then asked her to have dinner with him (including over the weekend when he would be “batching”). Notably, this request was made in the evening following the second incident described the paragraph above. The Tribunal also noted that the email chain continued despite two partners of the firm raising concerns about Mr Palmer’s behavour with him, including his treatment of young female colleagues. While Mr Palmer said he was seeking to bolster the solicitor’s self esteem after becoming aware she was unhappy at work, the Tribunal found the level of persistence present in the emails showed a lack of insight of the power imbalance. It also noted that there were inappropriate comments included in the emails such as “I promise not to bite. Well not hard.” The persistence and the unnecessary innuendo combined with the fact that Mr Palmer had about his behaviour meant that the conduct crossed the boundary into disgraceful and dishonourable.

There were two other charges which were dismissed as they were not made out on the balance of probabilities. A further omnibus charge was dismissed on the basis that three of the charges had already been proven to the standard of misconduct. However, the Tribunal reserved the right to consider the totality of the offending.

The Tribunal commented that the evidence of the complainants made plain the vulnerable nature of the junior staff at law firms who are acutely aware of the need to be seen in a positive light by employers to enable progress within the law. All the witnesses expressed extreme anxiety about the potential negative effects that their complaints may have on their prospects within the profession. Despite these fears, all maintained a determined effort to avoid over-egging the evidence and conceded Mr Palmer may not have intended offence. The Tribunal commended them for their careful evidence.

The Tribunal will set the matter down for a half day penalty hearing. It is noted that Mr Palmer has the right to appeal the Tribunal’s liability finding.

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