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A law firm's sexual harassment case: An inside story

By SCOTT BARANCIK and KRIS HUNDLEY
Published April 24, 2005


It was supposed to be a networking breakfast for young, female lawyers at the Tampa office of Holland & Knight.

But when an organizer of the December 2003 get-together said she thought the law firm offered excellent opportunities for women, there was dead silence. Then a number of junior lawyers began sharing stories of alleged harassment and intimidation as far back as 1999 by Tampa partner Douglas A. Wright.

An inquiry followed, first by an outside law firm, then by an internal committee. Every participant was sworn to secrecy. By May, most of Holland's investigating committee found the complaints against Wright, 44, credible. Punishments were recommended. Case closed.

But it wasn't.

Four of the young accusers raised their voices, dissatisfied with the outcome. Wright had been reprimanded, but not to the extent suggested. In a memo, they expressed anger at the managing partner of the 1,250-lawyer firm, Howell Melton Jr. He held his ground.

Six months later, Melton announced to the firm that he was promoting Wright to third in command. Then someone leaked the internal committee's report to local newspapers. Wright surrendered his promotion but remains a partner in the firm.

And what was once securely private offers a rare glimpse into the secret world of sexual harassment claims.

Selected excerpts from those documents follow.

Statement of female accuser #1

Within my first week as a summer associate in 2002, Doug Wright started coming into my office daily or every other day ... He told me to "Stand up. Turn around in a circle. You look like the hostess in a Chinese restaurant." He then walked out. I was very upset by his behavior and cried ...

... Right before I was set to join the firm as an associate, my rooming plans fell through ... I called (a male associate at the firm) ... to see if he could help me find a roommate. He offered me a room in his 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house ... Doug Wright became merciless in teasing me about it. He would ask or say things like: "Did you know (he) has a camera in your shower? Did you know (he) lays in your bed? Did you know (he) puts your panties on his head? ... What does (he) look like in boxers? ...

On at least one occasion I overheard Doug Wright say something like, "I wonder if (the roommate) is banging (her) yet" ... I decided to move out in the fall of 2003 ... ... In early fall of 2003, I got fed up and talked to several people about Doug Wright's power and pervasive influence ... I am upset that no one at the firm stood up for me to stop Doug Wright's harassment.

Statement of female accuser #2

Doug Wright asked me to "feel (his) guns" or to "feel (his) pipe" on countless occasions. As a young associate, you feel as if you cannot say no. ... He also asked you to "feel (his) pipes" in front of other attorneys ...

... I was walking down the hall and Doug Wright asked me to feel his thigh. I initially said no, but he persisted that I should feel his thigh. Finally, I felt his thigh ... As he walked away, he patted his bottom and told me that it was much harder ...

... I quickly learned that the best way to deal with Doug Wright was to simply avoid him. If I heard his voice in the hall, I would pretend I was on a phone call so he would not come into my office. If I saw him in the hall, I would change the way I was walking ... I would avoid monthly socials or other office social events if he was there...

... The worst part of the situation, however, is that there is a feeling in this office that everyone knows about his behavior and that it is accepted ... that Doug Wright is very powerful and untouchable. ...

Statement of female accuser #3

... My negative experience with Doug Wright began as soon as I started and continued daily until I was able to move off of his floor (in the company's office building) ... I was just out of law school and this was my first job as a lawyer ...

... At first, he would just stop by and we would have harmless conversations. It very quickly escalated from there. Within a short time, Doug Wright was spending between 30 and 45 minutes in my office, three to four times per week. We did not have normal "conversations." I was simply barraged with questions and ridiculed until Doug got bored and left my office.

Doug Wright would constantly ask me questions about my boyfriend ... When (my boyfriend) went out of town ... Doug would always insist that (he) was having an affair or visiting strip clubs ...

I would have been able to deal with this sort of conversation in and of itself, except that it happened EVERY DAY for weeks and weeks ...

... My worst experience with Doug came one day when I refused to come to his office ... An hour or so later, Doug came into my office and said, "Did you get the message that I wanted to see you?" I responded, "Yes, I got the message," and looked back down at my work. This sent Doug into a rage. He turned bright red and I have never seen him so mad since. He asked me if I wanted to be fired. He told me that he knew everybody in town and that the only place I would be able to get a job would be the public defender's office.

... Ever since that incident, the topic of me getting "fired" has been a favorite of Doug's.

... Doug Wright probably asked me to feel his "guns" about 4 or 5 times. Recently ... Doug Wright ordered me to fix his tie in front of (another male lawyer). ... ... By July of 2002, I became desperate to move (my office) ... eventually I was moved to a different floor and the daily harassment stopped ...

Statement of female accuser #4

...My first encounter with Doug Wright was at cocktail happy hour at the firm. He came up to me and said, "What is your name? Who do you work with?"

Doug Wright proceeded to ask me to "feel his pipes" in front of an entire room of attorneys. I felt extremely offended and humiliated ... I said, "Are you kidding?" and I walked away. ... My next encounter with Doug Wright was in the fall of 2003, at a recruiting cocktail reception in Gainesville, Florida. Doug Wright ... asked me what I was doing at the recruiting event. ... (He told) me that I was completely ineffective and that my days were numbered at Holland & Knight. I was mortified. There was not a hint of sarcasm in his voice...

... Doug Wright has poisoned the working environment in the Tampa office. When I hear his voice in the hallway I either pretend I am on the phone or just hold my breath and hope to God that he does not come into my office ...

Statement of Douglas A. Wright

... I have been at Holland & Knight my entire career, and it's an important place for me.

Regarding Female Accuser #2, I do not recall asking her to "feel my pipes" ... but I may have done so because I've done it to others ... I do not recall asking her to feel my thigh. I do not recall telling her that my butt was harder than my thigh, but it's possible that I did that ...

... Regarding Female Accuser #1, I recall that she had an outfit that reminded me of a hostess in a Chinese restaurant, but I cannot recall an incident in which I told her so ... I do not recall being in her office and telling her to stand up and turn around. I have lots of work to do, and I can't spend 20 minutes in her office.

I deny that I made any inappropriate comments to her about (renting a room from a male associate) ... I may have jokingly asked her what (her roommate) looks like in the morning ... I never asked (the roommate), "Are you banging (her) yet?" I do not use the term "bang."

I may have asked him if he was sleeping with her, but I don't really recall asking anything of the sort ... Perhaps I was standing in a group when a statement was made and she assumed it was me. For example, (another male associate) is more likely to use the term "banging" than I am ...

... It is possible that I touched her suit skirt in the Fall of 2003, but it would not have been sexual touching. I sometimes touch men's clothing. I recall criticizing people's clothing a lot a couple of years ago because the firm had gone to year-round business casual, and I thought people began dressing too casually and not like we work at a premier law firm.

... I do, however, ask people to feel my pipes. I do not have a typical physique, and a client once introduced me by telling someone to feel my pipes. I adopted it as sort of an icebreaker with new people. ... If a person declined to do so, sometimes I'd back off and sometimes I would ask again ... ...Regarding Female Accuser #3 ...I probably dropped by about three days out of the week. ... She was a litigator sitting on a corporate floor and I was concerned that she would be ignored. I would have talked to her about her boyfriend, but not any sexual questions ...

...I recall teasing her when (her boyfriend) was away about whether he called her to check in and then went back out. I probably said that he was out but not that he was cheating. I probably implied that he was out at bars with women. ... I recall jokingly threatening to fire her. I have threatened hundreds of people with firing and they all know that it is a joke. I even joke about myself ending up at the public defender's office. ... I thought I was being her friend. I was trying to get to know her and to help her get integrated into the office. I guess I did an ineffective job of communicating with her ...

... I do not target women. I joke and tease with everyone. I suppose some might think that makes me an indiscriminate jerk. ...

Investigating committee's findings, May 25, 2004

... The majority of the members found the allegations to be generally credible, and found it difficult to find the allegations less credible simply because of a series of general denials of recollection by several witnesses, including (Wright).

... In regard to (Doug Wright's) admitted habit of asking people to feel his pipes/guns/muscles, the majority of the committee found it baffling that (he) could believe that such a statement was an "icebreaker" ...

After a thorough investigation and careful consideration ... a majority of the Committee believed that...(Wright's) actions were of a sexual nature ... these actions of a sexual nature, combined with other taunting behavior by (Wright), constitute a violation of the (firm's sexual harassment) policy. A majority ... further found that the violation was exacerbated by the position of power acquired by (Wright), and his extremely close ties to others in the office who hold positions of power ...

In light of the (committee's) confirmation of violation of the policy, it is recommended that the Managing Partner consider the following courses of action:

Issue to (Wright) a private and personal reprimand ...

... Direct Wright to refrain from asking and/or requiring Firm attorneys, staff or others in the offices of the Firm to feel his muscles, guns, and/or pipes

... refrain from asking questions of or making comments to associates and summer associates concerning their sexual lives

... refrain from participating, for an extended period, in summer associate hiring

... refrain from serving, for an extended period, on any associate hiring or evaluation committees

... refrain from taking upon himself the task of monitoring the attire of Firm attorneys and staff...

... Require Wright to engage a professional counselor and/or trainer for sexual harassment awareness training and management training ...

... Wright has been entrusted with leadership positions within the Firm, and he has made questionable use of the power inherent to those positions ...

Memo from Holland & Knight managing partner Howell Melton Jr. to Investigating Committee (July 27, 2004)

... I am not persuaded by all of the findings articulated in the Report, but I am persuaded that, when viewed as a whole, (Wright's) actions were inappropriate and unacceptable. I find the reported conduct particularly objectionable in view of (his) position of leadership within the firm.

Therefore, I accept and will implement each of the (committee's) recommended sanctions as set forth in the Report, except the two that would bar (Wright) from participation in summer associate and associate hiring ...

Memo from four female accusers to Melton (August 2, 2004)

...We are very disappointed at your failure to adopt the recommendations set forth by the FEPC committee with regard to Doug Wright.

This is not a case of 4 lone females making isolated complaints. When this situation first developed, there were between ten and fifteen female attorneys, including at least one female partner, who met with (an outside) law firm to discuss the complaint against Doug Wright...

... The message that you have sent us by your memorandum is that cruel behavior is tolerated, so long as the perpetrator is in a position of power. Despite the "hell" that we have all been through, we have received no apology, no words of sympathy, only repeated orders of "keep quiet," "don't talk about this with anyone" and "this process is confidential." ... The system protects Doug, not us.

Memo from Melton to four female accusers (August 16, 2004)

... As the FEPC's report makes clear, the findings and, presumably, the recommendations of that committee were not unanimous.

Contrary to the concerns you expressed about my relationship with Doug Wright, he and I are not social friends. I assure you I was in no way biased in his favor ... I continue to believe that the sanctions I imposed in this case are both reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances. ... ... It is my earnest desire that our Tampa office will be a supportive environment for you to work and grow professionally.

Times editorial assistant Barbara Moch contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at 727 893-8751 or barancik@sptimes.com Kris Hundley can be reached at (727) 892-2996 or hundley@sptimes.com