Federal Court decision sees high general damages award for sexual harassment claim

23 November 2023

Warning: This article contains details about sexual harassment which may be upsetting for some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

The Federal Court awarded an employee who was sexually harassed by her manager the highest amount of general damages. The employer’s actions were found to have contravened the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

In issue

  • The claimant alleged that she was sexually harassed by the second respondent over a period of about 22 months while she was employed by his company, the second respondent. The second respondent was the manager and sole director of the first respondent. The claimant also claimed that the second respondent victimised her after she complained about the sexual harassment. She alleged that the second respondent’s conduct breached her contract of employment and was unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth).

The background

The claimant alleged that the second respondent sexually harassed her during her employment by:

  • Revealing to the claimant that he had developed feelings for her.
  • Stating unsolicited comments to the claimant about her appearance, including that she had a 'beautiful body' and 'bedroom eyes'.
  • Slapping the claimant’s bottom.
  • Giving her numerous unsolicited gifts, including designer items, rings, necklaces, gift cards and a massage.

The decision at trial

The Federal Court of Australia found that the second respondent’s conduct amounted to sexual harassment. Further, it was found that the second respondent victimised the claimant when he subjected her to a 'detriment' in response to the complaint she made regarding his behaviour.

The claimant was awarded $140,000 in general damages for the sexual harassment and $40,000 for the victimisation. The significant amount of damages awarded recognised the impact that the second respondent’s actions had on the claimant, including a psychiatric disorder that consisted of symptoms of depression, anxiety, disturbed sleep, reduced energy, poor concentration, lack of motivation, loss of appetite and a reduction in social contact. $15,000 was also awarded in aggravated damages due to the respondents’ behaviour in response to the claimant’s allegations of sexual harassment before the Federal Court proceeding was commenced.

Implications for you

There is no doubt that employers who contravene their obligations under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) face significant consequences, with this decision indicating that the courts are more willing than ever to award high amounts of damages to successful claimants. It is also a reminder that employers must be mindful of their duties under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to take reasonable steps to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.

Taylor v August and Pemberton Pty Ltd [2023] FCA 1313

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