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Sex harassment results in lawyer discipline

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//October 14, 2022//

Sex harassment results in lawyer discipline

By: Bridgetower Media Newswires//October 14, 2022//

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By Barbara L. Jones
Minnesota Lawyers Weekly

A rare complaint to the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility based on sexual misconduct has resulted in a stipulation for settlement and an expedited Minnesota Supreme Court hearing.

Clayton Halunen, of Halunen Law in Minneapolis, has stipulated to misconduct that occurred with two different male employees of his law firm. The complaint cites various occurrences from 2014 to 2019, some involving the workplace.

Halunen waived his right to answer and unconditionally admitted the allegations in the petition.

The Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility recommended a six-month suspension and a waiver of the reinstatement hearing. The parties agreed to waive the right to a panel hearing and proceed directly to the Minnesota Supreme Court. A petition has been filed with the Supreme Court.

The OLPR supplied a memorandum with the petition and stipulation noting Halunen’s genuine remorse and steps he has taken to address the issue at his office and elsewhere, including recognition of the wrongfulness of his misconduct, removing himself from hiring administrative support personnel and establishing a workplace hotline to report employee concerns.

He has also participated in therapy and marriage counseling with his husband, the memorandum stated. The memorandum also noted that his treating psychologist said there was a “vanishingly small, virtually no, probability of recurrence of the behavior.”

Halunen issued the following statement through his lawyer, Jeanette Bazis: “Clayton Halunen acknowledges that he exercised extremely poor judgment in the actions described in the petition by the OLPR. He could not be more sorry, and apologizes to the complainants.

“… Mr. Halunen has done a tremendous amount of work to understand what led to his poor judgment and to make sure that he avoids similar conduct in the future. Nothing like this will happen again.”

The complaint was filed by attorneys Chris Madel, Jennifer Robbins and Matthew Pelikan after they became aware that a complaint filed by one of the men, D.S., on his own, was going to be dismissed, Madel said.

“Jenny, Matt and I are extremely proud of our complaint,” he said. They are not satisfied with the recommended discipline and will appeal, Madel added. He also noted that they filed their complaint on June 17, 2020, and were notified of the resolution on Oct. 5, 2022.

The complaint involved Halunen’s relationship with two men referred to as D.S. and T.G. Halunen met D.S. and hired him at his law firm in 2014. “Due to his employment circumstances, and the inherent power imbalance between D.S. and respondent, D.S. felt compelled to accede to respondent’s advances and requests as he believed his job security depended upon obeying respondent and complying with his demands,” the petition states.  D.S. left the firm in 2017 and attempted a settlement with Halunen in 2019 but was threatened with criminal prosecution.

T.G. was a second-year law student when he encountered Halunen, who he thought could help his career. He began working for him in 2017. According to the petition, Halunen began engaging in communications that T.G. took as implicit conditions of advancement both in terms of initial employment at the law firm and eventual progression to a position as an associate at the law firm upon graduation. T.G. also experienced harassment and threats of prosecution, the petition states. He resigned after about three months.

The rules in question are Rule 8.4 (g) and (h). They state that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to (g) harass a person on the basis of sex, race, age, creed, religion, color, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, status with regard to public assistance, ethnicity, or marital status in connection with a lawyer’s professional activities; and (h) commit a discriminatory act prohibited by federal, state, or local statute or ordinance that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness as a lawyer. Whether a discriminatory act reflects adversely on a lawyer’s fitness as a lawyer shall be determined after consideration of all the circumstances, including: (1) the seriousness of the act, (2) whether the lawyer knew that the act was prohibited by statute or ordinance, (3) whether the act was part of a pattern of prohibited conduct, and (4) whether the act was committed in connection with the lawyer’s professional activities[.]

This is the third sexual harassment ethics case in Minnesota involving a law firm, said William Wernz, author of the treatise, “Minnesota Legal Ethics.” Rules 8.4(g) and 8.4(h), prohibiting harassment and discrimination, were adopted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Wernz said. There has been one discipline case under paragraph (g) but no case under (h) unless it was a private discipline matter, Wernz said. There is one case pending, In re William Alexander Winter A21-0831, which involves an attorney who admitted that he had exchanged sexually explicit emails with a female divorce client.  Memoranda order by the court on whether a recommended public reprimand was sufficient discipline were filed in April 2022, he noted.

“This is a very big deal,” he said.

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