‘Legal services are not to be bartered for sexual favours’

A Law Society of Upper Canada discipline panel has reluctantly handed a lawyer a reprimand after he admitted conduct unbecoming for sexually harassing a client.

The panel seemed to favour a tougher penalty for Toronto lawyer Steven Sinukoff, but declined to act because the reprimand was proposed in a joint submission by counsel for the law society and the lawyer.

“The reprimand or admonition that may have been seen as an acceptable penalty one or two decades ago is not, in our view, an acceptable regulatory response today, given the proper evolution of societal appreciation of the seriousness of sexual misconduct and the regulatory role of the Law Society in the public interest,” wrote panel chair Malcolm Mercer on behalf of the unanimous panel in reasons dated Jan. 16.

“While we are concerned that the existing sexual harassment penalty jurisprudence is not coherent, we do not think it appropriate to attempt to bring better order to that jurisprudence in a case proceeding on joint submissions and without the benefit of adversarial submissions. We are hopeful that another hearing panel will do so in an appropriate circumstance as we think sexual harassment should only rarely, if ever, result in a reprimand rather than a period of suspension,” Mercer wrote, adding that Sinukoff could expect disbarment in the case of a repeat offence.

The 1980-called lawyer has been in solo practice since 1995. According to the decision, he ran into trouble after being introduced socially to the complainant by a paralegal friend in late 2007.

The woman was involved in a nasty divorce and wasn’t pleased with her lawyer, and Sinukoff offered to meet her for a coffee date and a free consultation. During their meeting, the woman showed Sinukoff an affidavit from her husband and the lawyer offered to pass it on to a colleague who practised family law.

According to the decision, the pair returned to his office to fax the document, and Sinukoff invited the woman into his board room, where he told her he could knock $1,000 off her bill if she agreed to perform “favours” for him. She could start, he said, by showing him her breasts, says the decision.

“As she got up to leave, Mr. Sinukoff leaned over and moved his hand back and forth over her neck line. He then pushed her back in her chair, reached down her top and touched her breast,” says the decision. The woman said she would not “go in this direction” and left. Over the next few days, she would receive repeated calls from Sinukoff, all of which went unreturned.

The woman later told the paralegal about what had happened, and the paralegal told Sinukoff their friendship was over. Sinukoff then withdrew a letter of recommendation for the paralegal’s licensing application, which in turn prompted the complainant to come forward four months after the incident.

“Women must be entitled to deal with lawyers, whether as clients or as prospective clients, without having to worry whether they will be sexually harassed. Legal services are not to be bartered for sexual favours. Lawyers must act with integrity and they do not do so if they propose payment by sexual favours or if they commit unwanted sexual touching. The requirement of integrity is a foundation of the legal profession. In the twenty-first century, it must be understood by all lawyers that conduct such as this is utterly reprehensible and that it will attract serious consequences from the regulator,” wrote Mercer.

Sinukoff’s previously clear record of sexual harassment, and his admission of misconduct were factors that helped the panel accept the joint penalty, which also included a requirement that the lawyer complete counseling and a sensitivity and awareness training course, as well as that he pay $1,000 in costs to the law society.

Sinukoff does have a previous reprimand from 2007 for destroying evidence of a criminal offence to avoid charges being laid against his son, but the panel decided it was not relevant to the penalty in this case because of the very different circumstances of the offence.

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