Minnesota Supreme Court: 6-month suspension of lawyer too lenient

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the indefinite suspension of the law license of Twin Cities attorney, Clayton Halunen, who sexually harassed two male employees. 

Halunen may apply for reinstatement of his license in a year. 

The unanimous ruling overturns the decision of the director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR), Susan Humiston, who determined a six-month suspension was appropriate and Halunen would not need to apply for reinstatement.   

That decision led to friction among some members of the Lawyers Board, who did not need to approve the director’s decision, and who thought a six-month decision was too lenient.   

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ultimate responsibility for determining the appropriate discipline. 

Through a spokesperson Halunen declined to comment on the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision.  

Court: 6-month suspension inadequate 

The court said a six-month suspension was inadequate to protect the public and deter future misconduct from other lawyers.   

The time period was also in contrast to longer suspensions in three other lawyer sexual misconduct cases reviewed by the court.   

"The facts of the petition establish that Halunen targeted men who were vulnerable due to their age and socioeconomic status, encouraged them to work for his firm, and then sexually harassed them," the court said in its majority decision. 

"The sexual harassment was egregious because of the number of incidents—many of which involved intimate, physical sexual contact—and Halunen’s repeated exploitation of the power imbalance between himself and his employees. And Halunen threatened both men in an attempt to keep his misconduct hidden," the ruling continued. 

Two associate justices, Anne McKieg and Gordon Moore, concurred with the majority decision, but dissented in part by advocating for an even longer suspension of 18 to 24 months.   

As part of Halunen’s agreement with OLPR, he had agreed to the essential facts of the case. 

A ‘pattern of sexual misconduct’ 

According to the complaint, filed by civil attorneys for his two victims, Halunen engaged in a "pattern of sexual misconduct" for two and a half years. 

It began with Halunen’s groping of a 19-year-old employee, whose prior experience was working at McDonalds.   

Halunen’s behavior escalated to soliciting sex and explicit pictures in text messages as well as unwanted kissing and groping. The behavior occurred inside the workplace and at Halunen’s home and cabin. 

After the employee quit his job, he served Halunen’s law firm, which ironically specializes in cases of sexual harassment, with a demand letter outlining the sexual misconduct.   

Halunen, according to a stipulated agreement with OLPR, threatened the man with criminal charges and warned him not to obtain legal counsel. 

Around the same time, Halunen hired a second-year law student as an intern after reaching out to him on social media. 

Halunen took the young man on a business trip to California where he made unwanted sexual advances. He also made unwanted sexual advances toward the employee at his cabin.   

Because the man rejected Halunen’s sexual advances, Halunen sent the man a text pulling a previous full-time job offer and told him "he would have to earn a future position with the firm based on his performance." 

After the intern quit, Halunen had threatening communications with him and undermined the man with professional colleagues.

Reaction to ruling

Chris Madel, an attorney for one of Halunen’s victims said they "would have loved to submit more evidence to the Supreme Court."

"By doubling the number of days that Mr. Halunen can’t practice law, the Supreme Court has made our community safer and our profession better," Madel said.

Humiston, the director of OPLR who made the recommendation of a six-month suspension, said the Supreme Court’s decision will be helpful in future decisions.

"It is difficult to determine what level of discipline to recommend in situations where there is no prior case law," Humiston said in a statement.

"It also is instructive for practicing lawyers, who should understand the potentially serious licensing consequences for ethics rule violations," she said.