23 June 2009

NEWS - Adelaide Woman wins $466,000 for damages in sexual harassment case against Hickinbotham Homes



AN Adelaide woman has secured one of the largest payouts for sexual harassment in Australia, after suing her former employer in the Federal Court.

Malgorzata Poniatowska took action against Hickinbotham Homes, the company's founder and his son, former colleagues and Employment Services Australia over events leading up to her sacking in February 2006.

Today judge John Mansfield found two employees had sexually harrassed Ms Poniatowska when she worked for Hickinbotham Homes as a building consultant and ordered ESA, a part of the Hickinbotham Group of companies, pay her $466,000 compensation.

He made no findings against company founder Alan Hickinbotham and son Michael Hickinbotham, the company's managing director, who is also a member of SA's Economic Development Board.

Outside court, Ms Poniatowska said she was "very happy'' with the judgment.

"I'm very happy with this not only for myself but for all people who have been harassed in workplaces,'' she said.

"And I would strongly recommend to them not being afraid and stand up for their rights.''

Her lawyer, Peter Humphries, said the compensation award was the highest in South Australia for sexual harrassment and the second highest in Australia.

The court heard during a trial last year Ms Poniatowska worked for Hickhinbotham Homes between Jaunary 2005 and February 2006 and received sexual advances from two male employees and received an explicit picture text message on her mobile phone.

Ms Poniatowska's lawyers argued she suffered a major depressive disorder because of the conduct she encountered at the company and there was a causal connection between her termination and sexual discrimination.

Lawyers for Hickinbotham and their employees argued Ms Poniatowska's sacking had nothing to do with sexual discrimination but was because of customer complaints and poor work performance.

The Hickinbotham Group said in a statement after the judgment that the company had "strongly contested'' the allegations against it.

"We chose to defend this before the Federal Court because we knew it was the right thing to do. To take any other course of action would have been wrong.''

The company is considering the judgment before making further comment.

Hickinbotham Homes

IN ITS 55-year history, the Hickinbotham Group has built 20,000 South Australian homes, helped English migrants resettle and built schools and facilities for disabled children.

For a group that prides itself on sticking up for the underdog, yesterday was Hickinbotham's darkest hour.

Its reputation as a pillar of the SA community took a battering when a Federal Court judge ruled one of its female workers was sexually harassed, then unfairly sacked after she complained.

In a state-record compensation payout, former sales consultant Malgorzata Poniatowska was yesterday awarded $466,000 for sexual harassment in 2005 and unfair dismissal in 2006.

The 42-year-old's complaints about lurid emails and text messages from two male colleagues were not properly addressed and the company then set about a campaign to "white–ant" her before sacking her, the court found.

Justice John Mansfield found Hickinbotham had been dishonest in its reasons for sacking Ms Poniatowska in early 2006, when it claimed she was dismissed for poor work performance after three warning letters.

"Put bluntly, I find that none of those warning letters, or the suspension or termination of her employment were for her poor work performance . . . I find that there was a different, but consistent, motivation for those communications," Justice Mansfield found.


Justice Mansfield accepted Ms Poniatowska's evidence she was being "white–anted" because she had made claims of sexual harassment against fellow sales consultants Remo Lotito and Mark Flynn.

"Ms Poniatowska was not treated as the victim of sexual harassment, but as a problem to be dealt with," he found.

Outside court, Ms Poniatowska said her case was a victory for sexually harassed workers.

"I am very happy, not only for myself but for all people who have been harassed in the workplace and I would strongly recommend to them to stand up for their rights," she said.

Justice Mansfield's ruling followed a 16-day trial last year in which Ms Poniatowska outlined a number of allegations of sexual harassment. He rejected Ms Poniatowska's account of being kissed "forcefully" on the lips at a September 2005 party by Hickinbotham Group managing director Michael Hickinbotham and accepted Mr Hickinbotham's evidence that no such event happened, saying any contact was "incidental" and misinterpreted by Ms Poniatowska.

He also rejected a claim that company founder and former South Adelaide and Geelong footballer Alan Hickinbotham had harassed Ms Poniatowska by saying she had "two good assets" while staring at her breasts.

However, he found Mr Lotito and Mr Flynn had repeatedly harassed Ms Poniatowska by pestering her for sex through a series of calls, emails and text messages.

When she complained, Ms Poniatowska was told by team leader and sales manager Roz Sharrard: "What do you expect with a face like yours?" The findings were a bitter pill to swallow for the Hickinbotham Group of companies. Mr Michael Hickinbotham yesterday issued a written statement saying the group had fought the case because it was "the right thing to do" and planned to appeal against the "extremely disappointing" judgment.

Mr Hickinbotham – who is also a member of the state's Economic Development Board – said he was pleased that Justice Mansfield had rejected allegations of sexual harassment against him and his father.

Justice Mansfield also ordered Hickinbotham to pay Ms Ponia-towska's legal costs, which legal sources estimate at more than $1 million.

Her lawyer Peter Humphries said he believed the compensation payout was the second-highest awarded in an Australian sexual harassment case, behind a $492,000 payout to a NSW woman who was raped while working.

source 1
source 2

Note: report from last week prior to judgement

1 comment:

  1. In case. Ms Poniatowska's allegations that she was terminated due to sexual discrimination were true, I commend her for courageously fighting for her rights. The decision of the judge, which stated that the two employees had sexually harassed Ms. Poniatowska is a clear indication that the law upholds the equality of rights between men and women. It only signifies that the law does not favor any gender, but accords equal treatment and employment opportunities between male and female.