“Not just banter” – secretary wins sexual harassment claim against law firm

Tribunal: Troubled by witness statement

A legal secretary has won her claim of sexual harassment against a law firm whose owner was jokingly described by a colleague as a “sexual predator”.

An employment tribunal rejected the argument that some of the incidents Megan Bratt complained about at Lincoln firm JGQC Solicitors were simply office banter.

Though owner Marcus Hall and other staff at the firm – who gave evidence is his defence – may have considered their remarks banter, they could still be “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature”.

“Flippant or light-hearted comments can constitute harassment just as much as ones made aggressively,” the tribunal explained.

It was also highly critical of the comments made about Ms Bratt in the evidence given by staff.

The ruling recorded how one witness made “a personal attack on Miss Bratt with comments about how Miss Bratt in her social media ‘is in a shocking state of attire’, referring to her ‘flaunting herself’ and attending the office like she was dressed for a night out and offensively refers to Miss Bratt looking like a ‘love island reject’”.

The tribunal said: “We consider not only putting this opinion in a formal response to a serious allegation of sexual harassment offensive, but it clearly demonstrates how the respondents’ employees feel is an appropriate way to discuss their co-workers which goes a considerable way to support the claimant’s allegations about an offensive and intimidating environment.”

It was also troubled by the fact that the way Ms Bratt chose to dress or what she posted on her social media was advanced as evidence of her “not possibly being able to be offended upset or made to feel uncomfortable or intimidated by the things we have found Mr Hall did say and do”.

The tribunal went on: “The notion that the way someone chooses to dress means they cannot possibly take offence or be upset or offended by the matters Miss Bratt raised in the grievance is troubling particularly in a legal practice.”

Their statements were “demonstrative of the workplace environment Miss Bratt found herself in”, alongside staff who had known Mr Hall for many years.

“In this regard we are mindful of the focus on the claimant’s purported inexperience, the fact [employee] Sally Marsden says ‘we work in an environment where we are able to make fun of things…. anyone is free to discuss any matters they see fit’.

“Ms Marsden also tellingly says it has never been a secret that she called Mr Hall a ‘sexual predator’ and then rather troublingly goes on to say this is known as banter and she is unclear as to why Miss Bratt would be aggrieved by this.”

Ms Bratt began working at JGQC at the start of January 2022 and resigned seven weeks later.

Though the tribunal rejected her claims about some alleged instances of unwanted conduct of a sexual nature by Mr Hall – either because it was not convinced they happened or that they had made her feel uncomfortable – it did hold that others were.

It stressed, however, that it had not found that Mr Hall had a sexual motivation or was making sexual advances, pointing out that sexual harassment did not require this.

One incident was Mr Hall telling Ms Bratt about his ex-partner, whom he caught cheating on him with a young man and that he had found a used condom on the floor.

Another was her seeing adverts from dating sites which showed images of women “dressed in lingerie in provocative poses” on Mr Hall’s Facebook account when she was assisting him reinstall the app.

Mr Hall used various expletives, including sexual ones, when he called the office having left behind a loaf of bread.

“Her witness statement states that she did not feel safe, that the environment was one where they accepted the use of such language, and this was an example of Mr Hall’s behaviour and evidence of how it would be just laughed off by others. Her evidence is that she felt scared and intimidated to raise any concerns with him.”

Ms Bratt was asked why she did not raise anything with the others, and indeed seemingly laughed about what Mr Hall had said.

The tribunal said: “It must have similarly been evident to Miss Bratt that this was a group of people who had worked together for a very long time, were comfortable and familiar enough with each other to discuss their personal lives in detail, to use language that subjectively none of them seem to consider inappropriate in a workplace and we find it reasonable for the claimant to have not considered it a safe space for her to raise that she may not have held the same views about such topics of conversation, that they made her feel uncomfortable nor that she was offended and in some instances felt violated.

“It is all too easy for things to be said and given the label of ‘banter’ or that it was just a joke but this plainly cannot be right. It is immaterial whether the conduct is acceptable to others or is indeed common in the workplace.”

The tribunal said it was clear from a number of WhatsApp messages Ms Bratt had sent her boyfriend that by this date she found the environment “unbearable”.

It was clear too that a grievance Ms Bratt raised was not investigated in an impartial way, with those conducting it “very protective” of Mr Hall; “tellingly”, they did not believe anything she had raised.

Mr Hall admitted that Ms Marsden did call him a sexual predator but both argued that it had been a joke.

The tribunal said: “Whilst it is clear from Mr Hall’s evidence he did not in fact appear to date younger women and we accept his unchallenged evidence about the ages of the women he had past relationships with, the claimant clearly was told he was a sexual predator (it is raised in her first grievance letter).

“Notably Miss Bratt’s evidence is that Sally Marsden called him this when he was not present which is also consistent with Ms Marsden saying that she referred to him being a sexual predator behind his back.”

The tribunal concluded that, taken as a whole, the conduct met the legal test for sexual harassment. “It certainly was sufficient to have the proscribed effect of both creating an offensive environment and arguably an intimidating one.”

The tribunal said a settlement had been agreed after it handed down the oral ruling last November and apologised for the delay in providing written reasons.

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