Lawyer gets $1.5m for bank's sex harassment

By Annabel Crabb

July 11, 2004

Elizabeth Weston

Sydney lawyer Elizabeth Weston will be paid more than $1 million by the global investment banker Merrill Lynch in an eleventh-hour settlement of her sexual harassment claim.

Ms Weston, 29, who was told by senior lawyer Nathaniel Norgren at a Christmas party last year that she had a "great cleavage" and "great waps" (breasts), will now return to Sydney with her husband in a premature end to her London career, which began two years ago when she was recruited by Merrill Lynch.

It is thought that Ms Weston will receive about $1.5 million to drop her claims. A relieved Ms Weston said yesterday she could not comment, as the settlement included a confidentiality clause.

"Both parties are satisfied that they have been able to resolve their differences. Ms Weston will now be withdrawing her complaint from the tribunal," Merrill Lynch said in a statement.

Ms Weston made a formal complaint to Merrill Lynch after an office Christmas lunch last year, at which Mr Norgren allegedly became intoxicated and made a series of remarks commenting on her figure and speculating on her sex life. He allegedly put his hands around her waist inside her jacket and commented on her "skinny waist", as well as spilling red wine down her front.

Mr Norgren's lawyers last week confirmed that their client did not deny making comments about her breasts but disputed Ms Weston's claims that he had sexually harassed her.

The payment to Ms Weston, agreed between the parties in London on Friday, does not involve any admission of liability from Merrill Lynch, which is facing discrimination cases internationally, including a joint action from about 1000 female brokers in America who argue that the firm systemically underpays women.

Senior banker Stephanie Villalba is suing the firm in London for $20 million, claiming she was underpaid and maltreated during her time at Merrill Lynch.

Ms Weston studied law at Sydney University and worked at AMP before moving to London.

The Times reported yesterday that Merrill Lynch had made an initial offer to Ms Weston of $700,000 but increased it on Friday.

It is believed that Ms Weston, who has reported symptoms of anxiety, depression and tearfulness since the episode, was keen to avoid a lengthy public hearing in the London employment tribunal, which had set the case down for a four-week trial.

Merrill Lynch, it is claimed, did institute a formal disciplinary process last year when Ms Weston complained about Mr Norgren's behaviour. His $70,000 bonus was withheld as a punishment, but half was later restored to him on appeal.

Ms Weston claims she was isolated and "cold shouldered" by workmates after her complaint, and was refused permission to move offices despite repeated requests.

Mr Norgren has since left Merrill Lynch, and was due to start a new position in the Channel Islands with UBS Warburg, but his lawyers said last week that his job offer had been withdrawn amid the controversy.

According to The Times, documents prepared by Ms Weston's legal team also claimed the legal department where Ms Weston worked was a hot-bed of bad behaviour. She cited a male executive who habitually referred to a Danish colleague as Hurdy-Gurdy, saying "I haven't heard Hurdy-Gurdy talking for a while. She's talking filth isn't she? Those Scandinavians are always at it. It's filthy."