Worker wins record $268K sexual harassment payout

‘You have bedroom eyes’: Creepy texts lead to $268K sexual harassment payout

A record sexual harassment payout has been awarded to a female worker who was slapped on the buttocks and sent unsolicited gifts by her boss. She also repeatedly received creepy texts in which she was told she had a “beautiful body” and “bedroom eyes.” 

The sexual harassment took place over the course of more than two years. The worker also experienced victimisation at the hands of her boss for making a complaint and lodging a claim with the Australian Human Rights Commission. Let’s look at the events of this Federal Court of Australia case – Taylor v August and Pemberton Pty Ltd [2023].

Worker sexually harassed by boss 10 years her senior

29-year-old Fiona Taylor started working at jeweler Grew and Co in January 2018 as a manager performing several customer and supplier management duties. At the time, she was “excited” to join the business and after working there felt like she “finally” had a boss who recognised her talents. She considered her new position her “dream job.”

Her boss was Simon Grew, the 39-year-old owner of the business. He managed seven employees including Ms Taylor. She told the Federal Court of Australia that Mr Grew “constantly” expressed to her how important she was to the business. He also regularly told her that she did “an amazing job” and was a “superstar.”

In late 2018, Ms Taylor was promoted to a production manager role. It was at this time that the business moved to another location in Sydney’s CBD, with Mr Grew and Ms Taylor sharing an office. It was also around this time that Mr Grew went through a divorce with his wife. He also started showering Ms Taylor with numerous gifts and the duo often exchanged text messages.

Dream job turns into a nightmare

However, Ms Taylor’s experience at Grew and Co soon began to veer into very uncomfortable territory. On 23 July 2019, she was walking through the doorway from her office to the jewelry workshop. Upon turning around, Ms Taylor noticed Mr Grew “do a kind of, like, cricket bowl thing.”

He then raised his right hand, extended his arm out and motioned it over his shoulder. Then in a full circle underarm action with his hand cupped, Mr Grew slapped her on the right buttock. He then walked up to Ms Taylor and said “God, sorry.”

Ms Taylor told the Federal Court that the slap made her feel “extremely uncomfortable” and that she laughed out of shock. She said she did not complain at the time as the business did not have a human resources department. And she feared that she might lose her job.

“You have a beautiful body”: Boss makes inappropriate comments

During the period of October to December in 2019, Ms Taylor told the Federal Court that Mr Grew made a number of unsolicited inappropriate comments that she felt amounted to sexual harassment.

This included telling her that “I like petite curvy brunettes.” Mr Grew also said to her that “You have a really nice body”; “You have a beautiful body”; and “You have bedroom eyes.”

In a text message he told Ms Taylor: “There’s soooooo much good in you!” and “You’re not just enough, you are actually 100 percent perfect”.

Worker wins record $268K sexual harassment payout - AWNA

In another text message Mr Grew told her “Even your ‘flaws’ are perfect” and “Not sure if I mentioned how amazing you look today but if I did its worth bringing up against have a great weekend.”

“Most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen”

In January 2020, Mr Grew finally told Ms Taylor how he felt about her. She told the Federal Court that Mr Grew had told her:

“I’ve developed feelings for you. I can’t hold it inside any longer…..I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. We get along so well, we like the same things. My – my children don’t need a mother, they need a friend …”

To this, Ms Taylor replied:

“I like you as a person and I respect you as my boss, but I don’t feel the same way. I – I’m in a relationship, as you know.”

Ms Taylor told the Federal Court that she was “really overwhelmed at that point,” particularly because it seemed like Mr Grew was “projecting a future with her.” She said that afterwards she experienced anxiety “every day” in addition to not sleeping well.

On 27 January 2020, Ms Taylor and Mr Grew were set to travel to the United States together to attend a gem and mineral show. This was when she told him that “I have to put down some boundaries so we are both clear and on the same page.” And also that “I’d like to keep things work-related between us.”

Boss brings up feelings yet again

Some five months following Mr Grew’s revelation of his feelings for Ms Taylor, on 1 June 2020 he brought up the topic once again. He asked her “Are you and I going to become something or do I need to turn my feelings off?” Ms Taylor responded by saying that she did not have romantic feelings for him and told him to move on.

She told the Federal Court that she took sick leave the next day as she was “crying uncontrollably” and “hyperventilating.” Ms Taylor subsequently went to a doctor who placed her on a mental health plan. On 5 June 2020, Mr Grew texted Ms Taylor saying that he was “worried” about her. She replied by saying “don’t worry about me” and that she just needed “breathing room.” Mr Grew responded by saying that it was “a relief” to hear her say that.

But he also added that he was “worried that I’d be demonised for something I couldn’t control.” He also told her that “the thought of the anxiety you felt from the fear of me doing that to you because of something you didn’t feel really affected me”.

Ms Taylor told the Federal Court that by Mr Grew saying that, she “felt like he was trying to act like a victim.”

Boss showers Ms Taylor with unsolicited gifts

During the period of September 2018 and March 2020, Ms Taylor told the Federal Court that Mr Grew “showered” her with 19 unsolicited and unwelcome gifts. This included countless items of jewelry, including a platinum ring with emeralds and diamonds. Also, a 14-carat gold six stone diamond necklace.

Mr Grew also gifted Ms Taylor with $2,000 in cash which he described as an early Christmas bonus to assist with her savings for purchasing a property. He also bought her a massage session and a Michael Kors bomber jacket worth $548, and a $200 MECCA gift card.

Worker wins record $268K sexual harassment payout - AWNA

Ms Taylor makes sexual harassment accusations

The relationship between Ms Taylor and Mr Grew took a turn in August 2020. This was when Mr Grew sent a text message to Ms Taylor that was intended for another employee. In the text message, he accused Ms Taylor of being quick to “deflect blame” onto the employee. He also remarked that it was “interesting to see how quickly she’ll throw it onto someone else so she doesn’t look bad.”

Given the countless instances of sexual harassment she experienced, Ms Taylor sought legal advice. On 28 August 2020, her lawyers sent a letter to Mr Grew stating that he had made “persistent unwelcome advances to her of a sexual nature. That is, “in an attempt to lure [her] into a romantic relationship with [him].”

The letter outlined the full list of sexual allegations against Mr Grew and how they had contravened the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984. It also stated that Ms Taylor had the right to make a sexual harassment complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The lawyers sought a response to the allegations from Mr Grew by 4 September 2020. They also told him that Ms Taylor was unfit for work until 14 September, providing a medical certificate.

Lawyers victimise Ms Taylor, regard sexual harassment claim as “embarrassing”

On 4 September, Mr Grew’s lawyers sent a response to Ms Taylor’s lawyers which denied that he had breached the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The letter asserted that she had made up various details contained in the allegations. It also stated that Ms Taylor had “manipulated Mr Grew during the course of her employment and took advantage of their relationship for pecuniary gain.”

The letter also asked if Ms Taylor had resigned from her position and that her sexual harassment claim was “frivolous, vexatious and lacking in merit.” Also, that it was without “any reasonable prospects of success.”

Mr Grew’s lawyers demanded that Ms Taylor return several items of “company property.” The letter also included a number of demeaning and offensive statements, including:

“We have sighted many text messages from your client that, frankly, make her claim appear to be quite embarrassing” and “if your client feels ‘triggered’ by the Mociun ring, we suggest she returns it to the Company”.

On 23 September 2020, Ms Taylor filed a sexual harassment claim with the Australian Human Rights Commission. She then received a subsequent letter from Mr Grew’s legal team that accused her of stealing company property and threatened to report her to the police.

Federal Court of Australia orders record sexual harassment payout

Having considered Ms Taylor’s allegations against Mr Grew, the Federal Court had to decide if her claims were true. And if they amounted to “an unwelcome sexual advance or “other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” within the meaning of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

The Federal Court decided to award Ms Taylor with $268,233.64 in damages after ruling that she had indeed been sexually harassed by Mr Grew. This included $140,000 in general damages, which set a new record for the highest general damages payout ever under the Sex Discrimination Act 1986. Previously, the highest general damages payout under the Act was $120,000 in 2019.

The total payout figure also consisted of an aggravated damages payout of $15,000, $23,070.75 for past economic loss and $46,284 for future economic loss. Ms Taylor also received $3000 for future out-of-pocket expenses and $40,000 for victimisation. Mr Grew and his company were also ordered to pay Ms Taylor’s legal costs.

Federal Court slams “disrespectful, intimidatory” letter

The letter that Mr Grew’s legal team sent to Ms Taylor’s lawyers was called out by the Federal Court as “disrespectful, belittling, even offensive.” The court noted that the letter made a “threat of a costs order against her lawyers personally”, finding this “unjustifiable.” It also labeled the letter as “intimidatory” and that the claim that Ms Taylor’s case was “frivolous, vexatious and lacking in merit” was not justified.

The nature of the second letter Mr Grew’s legal team had sent Ms Taylor following her Australian Human Rights Commission complaint was also addressed. The court said that “the threat to report Ms Taylor to the police…had the effect of subjecting her to the threatened detriment of being charged with a criminal offence. And also, “of being embarrassed, offended, humiliated and/or distressed.”

Unsolicited gifts not initially unwelcomed

The Federal Court provided its findings on the 19 gifts Mr Grew had provided to Ms Taylor. It considered those provided after he had slapped Ms Taylor’s buttocks to be an expression of his “desire to enter into a romantic relationship.” And as such, the gifts were “either a sexual advance or other conduct of a sexual nature.”

However, the court had a different opinion about the gifts provided prior. It found that apart from the bomber jacket, Ms Taylor did not regard the gifts as “unwelcome.” Also, that she “never showed any discomfort in receiving the gifts.”

The court also acknowledged that these gifts were not of “particularly high value” and some were birthday or Christmas presents. In addition, it was favourable to Grew and Co for staff to be sporting its jewelry.

Flattering comments not considered sexual harassment

The Federal Court next turned to the comments Mr Grew made to Ms Taylor, namely saying that she had “a beautiful body” and “bedroom eyes.” The court recognised that these comments were regarded as “other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

However, it did not regard them as sexual harassment as Mr Grew and Ms Taylor had a close relationship. It was noted that they often discussed fitness and health, and Ms Taylor also complemented Mr Grew on his appearance.

Ms Taylor’s struggles post-sexual harassment

Considering Mr Grew broaching the prospect of entering a relationship with Ms Taylor for a second time, the Federal Court deemed this constituted sexual harassment. This was because he knew she was not interested. The court also found that he had victimised her for complaining about the harassment.

In awarding Ms Taylor a record payout, the court considered the emotional turmoil she had been left to experience. Also, the effect that the whole ordeal has had on her career. It noted that she has developed a chronic psychiatric disorder.” This has included experiencing “depression and anxiety, disturbed sleep, reduced energy, poor concentration, lack of motivation, loss of appetite and a reduction in social contact.”

“She also grieves the loss of her career and the damage she perceives has been done to her reputation,” the Federal Court said.

Have you been sexually harassed at work?

If you have been victim of workplace sexual harassment, we at A Whole New Approach can help. We are Australia’s leading workplace mediators, with over two decades’ experience helping victims of sexual harassment.

Our friendly team can provide all you need to know about making a sexual harassment complaint. And we can explain the obligations of your employer to properly respond to and investigate your complaint.

Call us today on 1800 333 666 for a free and confidential discussion about your circumstances.