Law firm senior partner denies sexual harassment allegations

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A senior law firm partner at the heart of a sexual harassment lawsuit has denied committing any inappropriate act against a female lawyer.

Through a statement of defence against the 27-year-old woman’s suit, the 44-year-old lawyer claimed that not only did he never commit any sexual harassment, she had never displayed any signs of being under any alleged distress while with the firm.

He claimed that her attempted resignations from the firm were not due to any alleged sexual harassment or pressure from him, but rather due to her inability to work with others there.

The senior lawyer claimed that her legal action amounted to an abuse of court process as it was purportedly “motivated by the plaintiff’s unhappiness following her unsuccessful efforts to continue with and rejoin the firm”.

“The first defendant (44-year-old lawyer) denies all and any allegation of inappropriate conduct, harassment, sexual harassment or sexual assault (alleged acts) which the plaintiff claims to have caused her to resign as she felt the second defendant’s (firm) workplace was unsafe.

“Although the plaintiff resigned three times between October and December 2019, she chose to continue working with the firm after the first two resignations.

“Even after the plaintiff tendered the third resignation on Dec 2, 2019, and left the firm on Dec 15, 2019, she made continuous efforts until January 2020 to continue with and rejoin the firm but was unsuccessful.

“The plaintiff’s resignations were not caused by the alleged acts but rather by her inability to work or get along with a colleague in the first defendant’s team, to fit into the team, and/or to manage her work,” the senior lawyer contended in the court filing, further alleging that he never manipulated or threatened her to stay on at the firm.

The statement of defence, sighted by Malaysiakini, was filed in the High Court in Kuala Lumpur on Dec 2 this year against the lawsuit, which claimed the woman suffered sexual harassment at the firm over a one-year period (which included her nine-month chambering period there) between December 2018 and December 2019.

In the legal action, the female lawyer claimed that her first few attempted resignations were retracted due to the senior lawyer’s alleged pressure to do so, including an alleged threat to negatively affect her future career prospects.

Through the statement of defence, the 44-year-old lawyer claimed that after every instance of alleged sexual harassment from him as cited in the lawsuit, the plaintiff continued dealing with him and working as usual, which amounted to contradictions of her allegations.

He contended that no sexual harassment took place as she had allegedly displayed readiness in standing up for herself and making her displeasure known to others, whether within or outside the law firm.

“The plaintiff had a choice not to work with the first defendant. Even though she was entitled to be automatically transferred on a rotation basis to work with another partner under the firm’s pupilage programme, she waived the right and chose to remain working in the first defendant’s team thereafter.

“The plaintiff did not raise the allegations or make any complaint to any of the firm’s partners, her pupil-master or HR (Human Resources) Department,” the senior partner claimed.

Under the law, pupil master refers to a senior lawyer under whom a chambering student (who graduated from law school) is officially attached to during the nine-month chambering period at a law firm.

In the present case, the plaintiff’s pupil master at the law firm was another senior of the firm and is a different individual from the 44-year-old legal practitioner named in her sexual harassment lawsuit.

Previously, it was reported that the law firm, in its own statement of defence against the suit, contended that the plaintiff never raised any complaint about any alleged sexual harassment during her time there.

On Nov 24, Malaysiakini reported that the female lawyer had filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the firm as well as its 44-year-old senior partner.

Through the lawsuit, the plaintiff claimed she endured sexual harassment by the first defendant during her chambering period at the firm from Dec 3, 2018, to Sept 11, 2019.

She also alleged that she continued to suffer harassment by him during her employment as a paralegal with the firm after completing her pupillage on Sept 11, 2019, pending her being called to the Bar.

The plaintiff claimed that while at the firm, the lawyer had by his words and conduct repeatedly and/or deliberately “created an offensive, hostile, intimidating, humiliating and distressing work environment for the plaintiff”.

She claimed among other allegations that, despite her refusals, the defendant “repeatedly and persistently asked the plaintiff out for lunch and coffee to the exclusion of her colleagues and/or teammates”.

She, among other claims, have accused the defendant of “repeatedly hovering over the plaintiff at her workstation and lurking behind her while she was working at her desk”, “had a habit of unnecessarily leaning in closely to the plaintiff during discussions and poking her to get her attention” as well as “repeatedly making comments about the plaintiff’s physical appearance”.

She also alleged to have attempted to resign three times due to the “distressing work environment” but did not do so because the defendant threatened to “speak ill of her to her prospective employers” if she left the firm.

She accused the law firm of being responsible for the defendant’s conduct as a senior partner.

On Nov 21, 2019, the Association of Women Lawyers urged law firms to work together to provide an industry-wide response against workplace bullying and sexual harassment.

Last year, the association and a group of young lawyers urged the Bar Council to step up the fight against sexual harassment within the legal fraternity.

On March 13, the Malaysian Bar reiterated its commitment to addressing allegations of sexual harassment within the legal profession by strengthening its internal complaints mechanisms. – Malaysiakini

The names of the parties involved in the suit have been withheld to protect the identity of the plaintiff.