Secretary wins landmark payout over rude e-mail

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The Independent Online

A black secretary who sued her law firm for sex and race discrimination after a solicitor sent an e-mail requesting her to be replaced by a "busty blonde" has been paid up to £10,000 in compensation.

The case is believed to be the first sex and race discrimination settlement involving an offensive e-mail. But lawyers said yesterday they expected many more to follow as employees became more aware of their right under data protection legislation to see all e-mails written about them.

The claim, which has now been withdrawn from the central London employment tribunal, referred to an exchange of messages sent hours after Ms Walker, a legal secretary, had handed in her resignation from the London law firm Charles Russell.

One of the solicitors wrote to his colleague: "Can we go for a real fit busty blonde this time? She can't be any more trouble and at least it would provide some entertainment!!"

The two lawyers at Charles Russell, one a partner in the firm's commercial department, wrote letters apologising for their behaviour. Clive Hopewell, the partner, dismissed the e-mail as "a childish joke", which he hoped would not "sour a good working relationship", and offered the secretary the chance to "chat" about it over lunch.

Adam Dowdney, the solicitor who wrote the e-mail, described it as a "senseless and thoughtless joke". He expressed his hope that they could all put the incident behind them so that she could enjoy her remaining four weeks at the firm.

Ms Walker was so upset by the e-mail, which she said stopped her sleeping at night, that she sought help from her doctor, who signed her off work.

In her statement to the tribunal, Ms Walker said: "I was very upset by these e-mails and find the content and tone both racist and sexist ... I felt very uncomfortable working at Charles Russell. Being in the office became unbearable."

Yesterday, James Davies, chairman of the Employment Lawyers Association's working party on workplace privacy, said: "This case reinforces the need for employees to know that their internal e-mail systems are a permanent record and should not be treated as if it is the same as something said in conversation."

He said that in the past two months his firm, Lewis Silkin in London, had acted in an increasing number of cases in which employers were being asked to disclose all e-mails relating to a particular person.

He said: "Employees who think they have a claim against an employer are increasingly taking advantage of the law to launch e-mail 'fishing expeditions'. Employers do have a duty to answer these kind of requests. If they don't, they could be in breach of the law."

Lawrence Davies, chairman of the Employment Law Practitioners' Association, said companies would now have to to ensure the content of e-mails did not cause serious offence.

But Mr Davies added: "We are also concerned that the case shows that the legal profession has not addressed issues of discrimination. The Law Society should take the lead."

A spokeswoman for Charles Russell declined to comment.

Lawyers for Ms Walker also declined to talk about the case, said to be the subject of a strict confidentiality agreement within the terms of the settlement.

Last year Ms Walker's lawyer, Richard Leong, of the London Race Discrimination Unit, said: "The tribunal will have to consider at what stage an allegedly thoughtless joke constitutes discriminatory treatment."