The boss at a country NSW law firm found to have "relentlessly" harassed a former employee with "unwelcome sexual advances" has appealed a judgment ordering him to pay his victim $170,000.
Anthony Morris QC told the Federal Court in Brisbane that Judge Salvatore Vasta had erred when he concluded Bangalow lawyer Owen Hughes' conduct toward lawyer Catherine Hill in 2015 was sexual in nature.
The multitude of emails, including one in September when he suggested he would replace Ms Hill with a Ukrainian woman who would submit to him romantically, had not intertwined her job security with his advances, he said on Wednesday.
"It's quite specific (in that instance) he is not suggesting he will terminate her employment. He is simply saying 'you might be sorry because I might end up having a relationship with another'," he said.
Mr Morris said there was no question Mr Hughes wanted a relationship with Ms Hill, but to conclude his behaviour was sexual was to make assumptions about what was "going through his mind".
The order for Mr Hughes to pay $170,000 was manifestly excessive and not backed by "a process of reasoning" but "language of extremity", he said.
Mr Morris suggested Justice Vasta was more intent on punishing Mr Hughes for "sinister" intentions rather than determining suitable compensation.
Ms Hill was awarded $120,000 in general damages and $50,000 in aggravated damages in May after the court heard Mr Hughes' behaviour included not only bombarding her with emails but coming into her bedroom on a work trip wearing only his underwear.
The behaviour left Ms Hill "extremely distressed" and suffering post-traumatic stress symptoms, her lawyer Kylie Nomchong SC said.
"By June 16, Ms Hill thought her mental state had declined to the point she may be unable to care for her own children," she said referring to a psychiatric report.
Ms Nomchong said Mr Hughes' claim there was not enough evidence for Justice Vasta to find sexual harassment was wrong.
She said Mr Hughes' emails, admissions to the court and "the bizarre events" of the Sydney work trip amply backed the finding.
She urged the full bench of the court to dismiss the appeal.
Australian Associated Press