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Disgraced Twin Cities attorney faces harsher penalties for employees who sexually harass

A six-month suspension is “inadequate” to discipline attorney Clayton Halunen for sexually harassing two male colleagues and then threatening to pursue criminal charges if they reported him, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In a six-page order, the Supreme Court said the disgraced attorney will be banned from practicing law for at least a year and must go through a rigorous reinstatement process if he chooses to re-enter the profession.

Under a much-criticized deal Halunen reached last year with the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR), he would have been automatically readmitted to the profession after six months.

The Supreme Court said the discipline recommended by the OLPR was not enough to protect the public and deter future misconduct.

“Halunen’s misconduct is very serious,” the court said. “Halunen targeted men who were vulnerable because of their age and socioeconomic status, encouraged them to work for his company, and then sexually abused them. The sexual harassment was egregious due to the number of incidents, many of which involved intimate and physical sexual contact — and Halunen’s repeated exploitation of the power imbalance between himself and his employees.”

Halunen is openly gay and is well known in the Twin Cities for his advocacy work on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Blois Olson, spokesman for Halunen Law, said his client declined to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision. Previously, Halunen apologized for his conduct, telling the Star Tribune he was going through a “difficult personal time” as he sexually harassed his employees.

Attorney Matthew Pelikan, who represented both victims, said he was grateful the Supreme Court had heeded calls for a harsher penalty from his law firm and others.

“We think this is a big step forward,” Pelikan said. “If Halunen wants to practice again, he will have to explain to the court why reinstatement is warranted.”

The ruling is the latest embarrassment for the OLPR, which was close to dismissing the case against Halunen in 2020, according to state records.

OLPR director Susan Humiston was reappointed for another two-year term in 2022 despite a scathing performance review by a state oversight board that blamed her for high turnover and declining quality of the agency’s work.

The oversight board said some of the filings demonstrated “inadequate investigation” and “non-existent analysis of significant legal issues.”

Humiston said she appreciated the High Court’s advice, noting it would be ‘helpful to us in future cases’. Some members of the state council that oversees the OLPR objected to the six-month probation deal for Halunen, saying it was too lenient.

“It’s also instructive for practicing attorneys, who should understand the potentially serious consequences of licensing for violating ethics rules,” said Humiston, who also expressed gratitude to Halunen’s victims for “bravely “disclosed personal information” that made this decision possible.

If Halunen wishes to practice law again, other attorneys will have an opportunity to weigh in on the matter. When the scandal broke into the public eye last year, some Twin Cities labor attorneys said Halunen’s license to practice law should be permanently revoked due to the extent of his misconduct.

One of Halunen’s victims was a 26-year-old law student who joined the firm as an intern in 2017. In an affidavit, the man said Halunen had jumped naked into his bed as they were on a work trip to San Francisco. then climbed on top of him.

“I forcibly pushed him away,” he told investigators.

Back at the office, the man said in the statement, Halunen would try to kiss him while they were in the elevator. He said Halunen also sent him provocative text messages. The man said he decided to quit the company after three months when Halunen tried to get him to sleep in his bed on another work trip.

Another victim said Halunen fondled her genitals and tried to have sex on at least two occasions, only breaking off an encounter after Halunen spotted her husband coming home. In 2015, Halunen threatened to fire the employee if he didn’t have sex with him, according to her complaint to the OLPR.

At least three lawyers left the firm after witnessing inappropriate behavior by Halunen or hearing colleagues talk about incidents of sexual misconduct, according to affidavits collected by OLPR. At least four of Halunen’s employees complained about his advances, with several achieving out-of-court settlements, OLPR records and interviews show.

Pelikan said the onus would be on Halunen to show that he had changed his ways. In his 2022 statement to the newspaper, Halunen said he backed out of the hiring process and set up an employee complaint hotline. He said the company also updated its respectful workplace policies and hired a full-time human resources professional.

Pelikan said the Supreme Court may not be swayed if Halunen seeks reinstatement. Two members of the Supreme Court disagreed with the majority opinion this week, arguing that Halunen should be banned from practicing law for at least 18 to 24 months.

“It has a lot to do with how Mr. Halunen performs over the next year,” Pelikan said. “As we have said in our public filings, he has made statements that indicate a lack of contrition. … It will be up to the Supreme Court to determine whether he is fit to practice at the end of this. I don’t think so. none of these conclusions are taken into account.”

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