Law partner’s drunken trip to sex shop with female interns labelled ‘disgraceful and dishonourable’

Richard Dean Palmer. Photo / File

A former partner at a top Kiwi law firm has been found guilty of a range of misconduct charges – including plying three junior law clerks with alcohol and taking them to a sex shop.

Five people came forward, including three young women, from Richard Palmer’s workplaces to paint a picture of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour spanning almost three years.

The allegations were raised in an Employment Relations Authority decision nearly three years ago, but now the Lawyers and Conveyancers Tribunal – which assesses the suitability of legal professionals to practise – has found him guilty of multiple misconduct charges.

The first charge relates to an incident in 2015 while working for the firm Anderson Lloyd where Palmer took two female law clerks to lunch at a BYO restaurant. After an hour or more both women started to receive texts from their colleagues asking where they were and both became anxious to return to work.

However, Palmer took them on to another venue to purchase some stronger liquor which both women poured out when he wasn’t looking.

He then took them back to the office carpark and instead of going back to work he steered both women to drink at another place nearby and reassured them they could blame him for being late.

The tribunal noted both women were summer clerks and intent on making a good impression in the hopes they’d be hired when they graduated.

On the way to the bar was an adult sex shop that had been the subject of media coverage when other businesses objected to its opening in the area. Palmer took both women inside and began talking to the shop assistant.

Both women said they felt very uncomfortable and “weird” about the situation and Palmer obtained business cards from the store assistant and handed them to the clerks.

They made it to the final venue where they drank some more before returning to the office about 5pm.

“Both were very upset by not only how the afternoon had progressed, but the fact that they would be thought badly of for coming back to the office so late, and a little the worse for wear,” the tribunal said in its decision released today.

The women described feeling obliged to go along with whatever Palmer was suggesting because of the power imbalance between them as summer clerks and him as a senior member of the firm.

“We regard Mr Palmer’s apparent lack of awareness of this dynamic as reprehensible,” the tribunal said.

“He also plied them with liquor, having taken them to a venue where it was not easy for them to ‘escape’, that he then insisted on further alcohol intake at two further venues and that he embarked on the highly inappropriate activity of taking them into an adult sex shop.

“We definitely consider that his behaviour would be considered by right-thinking members of the profession as disgraceful and dishonourable.”

Anderson Lloyd notified Palmer two days after the lunch that the situation would be investigated and suspended him from being in the office until it had concluded.

In another incident in 2017 at another lunch where “a large amount of alcohol was consumed”, Palmer leaned in close to a woman, patted her on the knee and stroked her hair and shoulder. When she moved seats to get away from him he followed her.

The woman, an intermediate solicitor, likened the behaviour to “something a father might do” but was not appropriate between a senior colleague and employee. She said it made her feel particularly uncomfortable.

“We consider that touching a junior female colleague on her knee, leg or her shoulder a number of times and stroking her hair goes well beyond the bounds of merely unacceptable conduct and again reaches the standard of disgraceful and dishonourable conduct,” the tribunal found.

Another charge relates to a series of emails between Palmer and a first-year lawyer at the firm.

He suggested he take her out to dinner in an email sent at 9pm on the same night the inappropriate touching occurred with another lawyer.

It is alleged that the contents of some of the emails contained sexual innuendo and inappropriate references, and Palmer said these were jokes that were an attempt at humour that had fallen flat.

“I promise not to bite. Well not hard,” one of the emails read.

The tribunal said that Palmer was at pains to point out the background which led to the initial invitation to meet with the woman who had decided to leave the firm and says catching up with her socially, away from the firm was to bolster her self-esteem.

“The level of persistence of Mr Palmer’s attempts to secure a dinner with Ms X, as demonstrated by the emails themselves, show once again a lack of insight or disregard of the power imbalance between the practitioner and a junior female staff member,” the tribunal said.

The woman raised the emails with Human Resources during her exit interview at the firm and the matter was escalated to the HR manager.

The tribunal also found that the contact was concerning because two senior partners had met with Palmer and raised the issue of his alcohol in the workplace.

They also had raised with him concerns that had been expressed by other partners about Palmer’s treatment of young female colleagues and what was seen as a propensity to invite those colleagues out to lunch or coffee.

Several other charges related to alcohol consumption were dismissed by the tribunal.

“The evidence of the five complainants in this matter make plain the vulnerability of junior staff who are acutely aware of the need to be seen in a positive light by prospective or actual employers,” the tribunal said.

“Almost all of the witnesses we heard expressed extreme anxiety about the potential negative effects these complaints might have on their future prospects.”

A penalty hearing is yet to be set by the tribunal.

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