Appeal dismissed for plaintiff's lawyer in Oracle sexual harrassment case

The Full Federal Court has ruled that the use of the term 'disturbing' in the judgment of the Oracle case did not damage the reputation of the plaintiff's former solicitor.
Written by Josh Taylor, Senior Journalist on

The former solicitor for Rebecca Richardson, who successfully sued Oracle over the sexual harassment she was subjected to by a co-worker, has had his appeal against the costs ruling dismissed by the Federal Court today.

Justice Robert Buchanan ruled in February that Oracle was liable for the sexual harassment of Richardson, a former project manager, by a sales representative, Randol Tucker, between April and November 2008. While Richardson had sought AU$450,000 in damages, she was only awarded AU$18,000, because she had left Oracle for a role at EMC that only paid slightly less than her previous job.

But when the court then ruled on costs, Richardson was left with a massive bill covering not only her legal costs from when Oracle made its first offer to settle the case with her on September 4, 2010, but also Oracle's and Tucker's costs from that date to the end of the case in February.

The ruling revealed that Oracle had offered to settle the case initially for AU$55,000 but Richardson responded by asking for AU$106,500 plus interest and costs. After this was rejected, Tucker made a second offer for AU$25,000, and Tucker and Oracle together made a offer of AU$85,000, which was again rejected.

For this reason, Buchanan ruled that the first offer was more than adequate to cover Richardson's losses incurred when she left Oracle, and, from that date, the costs of the case should be covered by Richardson.

The judge also specifically questioned how Richardson's legal costs could have run so high, mentioning that as of the end of 2011 they were said to be AU$224,475.80. This meant that if Richardson had recovered 60 percent of costs on taxation, she would still have owed her law firm, Harmers Workplace Lawyers, AU$22,287.75, and have no money left for herself.

"That picture is a very disturbing one. At this point, whatever the merits of Ms Richardson's claims, the proceedings would have been conducted solely for the financial benefit of her lawyers," Buchanan said in his judgment.

Those two sentences became the subject of a hearing today brought by Harmer's Michael Harmer, who had sought leave to appeal the costs ruling, claiming to be "aggrieved" and "prejudicially affected" by the judgment.

Counsel acting for Harmer today argued before Justices Susan Kenny and Nye Perram, and Chief Justice James Allsop that media reporting of the case reflected negatively on Harmer and the fees he charged.

The court ruled against Harmer today, stating that the term "disturbing" could be interpreted as referring to how much it costs to enforce the provisions of the Act.

"[It is] disturbing to find that a judgment of this kind would still leave Ms Richardson out of pocket," Kenny said.

"The fact remains that he finds it disturbing. That is not remarkable."

Harmer has since been let go from representing Richardson, who herself is appealing the costs ruling in a hearing scheduled for August.

Allsop said that if the court had taken on Harmer's appeal and found that his fees were reasonable, it could have potentially undermined Richardson's own appeal by proving that she should have accepted the original offer from Oracle.

"If the position were that these fees were not payable, it would militate in favour of the offer being more acceptable, rather than being unacceptable, because Ms Richardson would not be out of pocket."

Harmer has also sought leave to appeal on the same grounds for a ruling by Justice Steven Rares in the sexual harassment case brought against former parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper by his former employee James Ashby, where Rares found that the case was being brought against the independent MP to pursue a political attack.


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