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B.C. lawyer's drunken 'creepy uncle' routine lands him suspension and fine

Scott Thomas Johnston of CBM Lawyers LLP made inappropriate comments and gestures to female colleagues, a Law Society of BC panel found.
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The ruling stems from a June 2020 firm summer party.

A real estate lawyer has admitted he sexually harassed two employees at his Langley law firm, while drunk at an office event, and has agreed to a six-week suspension of his credentials and a $2,500 fine.

A Law Society of BC hearing panel found Scott Thomas Johnston committed the professional misconduct following joint submissions from himself and the society’s executive director, in a decision posted April 13.

According to the agreed facts in the misconduct hearing, Johnston, a partner at CBM Lawyers LLP, was travelling with co-workers on a private bus to a Vancouver restaurant on June 20, 2020, for the firm’s summer party.

On the bus, Johnston engaged with a female articling student, complimenting her lipstick and sunglasses. At the restaurant, Johnston told the panel he performed what he called a “creepy uncle” routine, which involved him peering from around a corner, staring with a “creepy” expression on his face.

Johnston “felt that the ‘creepy uncle’ routine was a joke and that it was humorous. He felt it was a routine intended to be a parody of an uncle who behaved strangely, but not in a sexually suggestive manner,” the panel noted.

Johnston proceeded with another routine with the articling employee after she had stated she ate too much and felt like she had a so-called “food baby.”

At one point Johnston held her close, by the arm, and touched her stomach with his other hand as part of the joke about the food baby.

Johnston told her, according to the panel’s decision, “he thought that with her eyes they would make a really good baby together.”

Following dinner and on the bus ride home, Johnston began drinking from a container of alcohol he had in his jacket pocket.

For part of the return bus trip, Johnston sat next to the woman and told her she had been “ballsy” to ask for a raise and that his law partner had been mad at her for doing so.

The firm was not making much money due to the pandemic, he explained to her.

Johnston also talked about how another employee had asked for a raise when they did not deserve one; he also told the woman that she had a bright future at the firm, the panel noted.

Meanwhile, also on the bus, Johnston, the panel respondent, engaged in harassment of another female employee, identified as ‘B.’

“During the return bus trip, the Respondent was near the back of the bus dancing in the aisle. While standing behind B, the Respondent moved his hand toward her head. B pushed his hand away and told him not to touch her head. The Respondent responded by saying words to the effect of ‘It’s not like I made this motion,’ while making a downward gesture with his hand, miming a sexually suggestive act involving a head moving towards the Respondent’s crotch. He did not touch B’s head when he made the comment and gesture. The Respondent walked away after B told him to ‘buzz off.’”

Feeling uncomfortable with how the evening panned out, the articling employee went to the firm’s human resources department and subsequently filed a workplace bullying and harassment report with WorkSafeBC in relation to CBM and a discrimination complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. She quit on Oct. 19, 2020, after the firm revised its workplace policies for such matters.

The woman “alleged that she had been constructively dismissed by CBM and that she also believed that it was clear she had no future at CBM given that [Johnston] was in a position of power at CBM,” noted the panel.

The second woman also informed human resources about being uncomfortable around Johnston.

The panel reviewed what constitutes professional misconduct and eventually ruled Johnston’s actions fit the bill.

“Based on the evidence, we find that the Respondent sexually harassed A and B on June 20, 2020 by becoming intoxicated and acting in an inappropriate sexual manner toward A and B at the Event and on the bus ride home. An aggravating factor is that the Respondent was A and B’s employer and one of two partners at the firm. As such, he was in a position of power over his employees. An additional aggravating factor is that the Respondent was also A’s mentor,” the panel stated.

Johnston had since “taken remedial steps to manage his alcohol dependency,” the panel noted in handing down its suspension and fine.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca