Claims of office-wide bullying by a legal secretary employed by Meridian Lawyers in Sydney have been dismissed as false by an independent arbiter, with the complainant painting a picture for the Fair Work Commission (FWC) of what she perceived to be a culture of conspiracy and nasty remarks at the law firm.
The secretary, Linda Hanrick, had put to the tribunal, that she was dismissed over a series of remarks that she alleged were directed to her by several staff members in Meridian’s Sydney office. After investigating Ms Hanrick’s complaints, the firm determined them to be false and fired her for serious misconduct.
Ms Hanrick’s complaints concerned other legal secretaries and fee-earners at her former workplace, whose conduct she considered were intended to “unsettle her”.
Some of the incidents which the secretary raised included being referred to as a “chook” by a senior workplace relations lawyer at the firm, and another allegation that a principal lawyer walked by her desk and said: “You’re thick”. Ms Hanrick also alleged that on one occasion this same lawyer stood behind her and said “you are evil, you evil girl”.
At the very beginning of her employment with the national law firm, Ms Hanrick suggested the lawyer (who would ultimately investigate the bullying complaint) had “strategically” placed “satirical paraphernalia” on her table. By this, Ms Hanrick meant copies of the Law Society Journal, whose colloquial title ‘LSJ’ bore a similarity to her own initials.
A version of the conversation that took place at the final of three meetings between the aggrieved employee and Meridian principal Sharlene Wellard, who received and looked into the workplace complaint, was extracted in the judgment handed down by the FWC.
Ms Wellard put to the secretary that in her view, Ms Hanrick had made up allegations against other members of staff. She then explained that the firm was considering sacking her.
Ms Wellard: We think the false allegation is serious and we are considering terminating your employment. What do you have to say about that?
The applicant: [yelling] you can’t do that. You’ve had it in for me from the start. My very first day here you said something to Heather [former receptionist] about me. ‘Quick chat, quick chat’ that rhetoric of the bullies and LSJ Sharlene, LSJ what does the J stand for?
Ms Wellard: Hold on. What do you say I did? You’ve never raised any of this before. I asked you to email me any other examples before today. What’s the issue with Heather?
The applicant: LSJ, LSJ, what’s the S stand for?. Quick chat that’s the rhetoric of bullies.
Ms Wellard: Hang on Linda, I need to unpack that one at a time. You haven’t raised any of this about me before and I’d asked you for any examples. What’s the issue with Heather?
The applicant: On my first day, you said something to Heather at reception, you called me a chook?
Ms Wellard: What did I say? I don’t remember saying anything about you and certainly have never called you a chook.
The applicant: I don’t know, but you know what you said and quick chat, quick chat you use the rhetoric of bullies.
Ms Wellard: When did I say that?
The applicant: In your email, telling me to come to your office for a quick chat.
Ms Wellard: Linda, I said come to my office for a quick chat about the matters we had talked about in our meeting. People can see your computer screen and your desk. I didn’t want to come around and have people wondering why I was there.
The applicant: Quick chat’ is used by bullies. LSJ, LSJ LJ are my initials, what does the ‘S’ stand for?
Ms Wellard said the applicant was using a raised voice and she really did not know what she was talking about. The conversation continued:
Ms Wellard: Linda I don’t understand the LSJ reference. Can you give me more information?”
The applicant: “In your room when you said come in for a “quick chat” you had papers with LSJ on your desk.”
Ms Wellard: “Do you mean the pile of Law Society Journals on the table in room?”
The applicant then stared at her blankly.
Ms Wellard: They are on the table for me to flip through if I ever get time. They are always there and that’s where Alison [my secretary] leaves the files she wants me to sign for closure.
The applicant: What does the ‘S’ stand for?
Ms Wellard: Society, what do you think it meant? I though your initials were LH and that pile of journals had nothing to do with you. Do you think I put them there to somehow unsettle you?
The applicant: You know Sharlene, you know.
Ms Hanrick denied having concocted the bullying throughout the tribunal hearing and continued to maintain the veracity of her own account.
She rejected the suggestion that she ever yelled at Ms Wellard during the 9 November meeting, although acknowledged to the tribunal that there had been an argument about the justification that was used for her dismissal.
Ms Hanrick also said that she had “no real opportunity” to respond to Ms Wellard’s finding that “on the balance of probabilities” the secretary had made up the bullying claims at the final November meeting, when she was fired.
At her Fair Work Hearing, Ms Hanrick told the tribunal that she had mentioned fresh bullying claims at this final meeting, because when she had initially raised concerns about how others were treating her at work, she was not being listened to and treated as a “silly person”.
It was later alleged by Ms Hanrick that Meridian Lawyers managing principal Paul Baker “had it in for her and her family” – specifically, that he had some grudge against her niece.
She gave another account to Ms Wellard that the managing principal had walked past her desk with another colleague, saying negative things about her and her family under his breath and that both lawyers were hanging “their heads down in apparent shame”.
In a reply statement, the judgment outlined that Mr Baker was disappointed, surprised and bewildered when he read what the applicant had asserted about his conduct and the conduct of others.
“Meridian Lawyers has a wonderful and collaborative culture with principals and staff; all of whom are caring and compassionate,” Mr Baker deposed.
Mr Baker strenuously denied the allegations about him and categorically rejected the assertion that he ever behaved in a way to antagonise Ms Hanrick. He had never said anything about her, or her family. Indeed, he knew nothing about her, or her family. In addition, Mr Baker rejected the allegation that on 31 October 2017, he had walked around in the office with his head down in "apparent shame".
The legal secretary also denied the claim that she had once told another lawyer, named David Partridge, that he was a cat – and that her comment was mischaracterised because she had proclaimed that she was a “a cat, meow” and held her hand up near her face to mimic a feline gesture.
Ms Hanrick’s compensation application for being unfairly sacked from her job in November, 2017 was dismissed by Fair Work Commission (FWC) last week.
Rejecting the application on June 5, FWC Deputy President Peter Sams on June 5, remarked that “sadly, if ever there was a case where a dismissed employee was the foolish and misguided choreographer of their own downfall, this must be it”.
He agreed with Ms Wellard’s finding following her internal investigation that the legal secretary had conjured “retaliatory complaints” against various members at the firm. Mr Sams said that Ms Hanrick had, in fact, gone beyond that point, as demonstrated by her evidence which showed a “disconnect between reality and fiction”.
“As quick as a flash, she set out to cast her net of complaints far and wide across the firm, to accuse many other employees (beyond special counsel Nicole Cerisola and solicitor Greg Bawden) including senior principals, as perpetrators of bullying, or at the very least, inappropriate behaviour towards her,” Mr Sams said of the complainant.
“She did so by drawing nonsensical conclusions from totally unrelated events or she simply made up allegations which were utterly implausible or preposterous,” he said.
By way of example of Ms Hanrick’s non-sensical claims, the tribunal pointed to her allegations that a twitter comment she had made in March 2017 was somehow linked to a private conversation that she claimed to have overheard between two colleagues some seven months later.
“The relevance of any link between these two matters, months apart, escapes me,” Mr Sams said.
Another glaring example was Ms Hanricks’s assertion that Law Society Journals were somehow strategically placed on a partner's side table to ‘unsettle her’ because LSJ, were the initials of her name.
“Apart from the obvious, that is, her initials are LJH, to claim Ms Wellard had used copies of the Law Society Journals, which the applicant described as ‘satirical paraphernalia’ to intimidate her, was bizarre and fanciful,” the tribunal said.
Mr Sams assessment was that all the complainant’s allegations were intended to create an image of bullying, antagonism and inappropriate behaviour across the firm, of which Ms Hanrick was the sole victim.
“I am bound to say nothing could be further from the truth. In some cases, the persons she complained about, had little or no contact with her, and did not even know who she was,” Mr Sams said.
The steps taken by Meridian Lawyers in investigating the complaints raised by the legal secretary could not be criticised, Mr Sams found. He noted that the mid-tier firm had a specialist employment and industrial relations team, and that the way the firm engaged with the complaints and communicated with the complainant demonstrated a thorough and impeccable adherence to procedural fairness.
"I do not intend to interfere with Meridian Lawyers’ decision to dismiss Ms Linda Hanrick on 9 November 2017. Her dismissal was not ‘harsh, unjust or unreasonable’, either substantively or procedureally, within the meaning of s 387 of the Act.
"Ms Hanrick’s proven serious misconduct and her complete lack of contrition or regret for her conduct was incompatible with the continuation of her contract of employment," he said.
Finally, commenting on the last meeting that Ms Hanrick had with HR representatives at the firm on November 9, 2017, Mr Sams said the defiance and hubris the legal secretary showed on this day was the “most disturbing and unfathomable feature” of the case.
“Given the variety and multiplicity of the applicant’s false allegations against numerous persons, it is beyond belief that she did not back down from any one of them. She denied them all, even in the face of reflection on the contrary evidence in this case, and the objective implausibility of most of her complaints,” the tribunal said.
According to the FWC decision, Ms Hanrick continues to work as a legal secretary “on a casual, intermittent basis as she continues to apply for permanent roles”.