'Why only six months?' Lawyers’ board questions attorney discipline

The lawyers who blew the whistle on prominent Twin Cities civil attorney Clayton Halunen are now asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to reject a negotiated six-month suspended license, saying there is evidence that was never considered.

Halunen reached the agreement earlier this month with the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR) in which he admitted sexually harassing two men – identified by their initials D.S. and T.G. -- who worked for his firm, Halunen Law.

The agreement, which still needs approval from the Minnesota Supreme Court, was negotiated by OLPR’s director, Susan Humiston.

But some members of the board that oversees OLPR expressed concern about the discipline agreement Friday afternoon during their monthly meeting conducted over Zoom.

"Why was there only a six-month suspension?" asked Mark Lanterman, an expert in computer forensics and a former Hopkins Police officer, who is a non-lawyer member of the Lawyer’s Professional Responsibility Board (LPRB).

"I’m just a member of the public, to me, it seems if the victim was a woman, it would’ve been more than six months," Lanterman said.

Humiston replied that it’s not appropriate for her to comment while the case is still pending.

Attorney and LPRB member Bruce Williams said, "Trust me we are getting inundated with text messages and emails," regarding the Halunen case.

Williams asked Humiston, given the severity of the allegations, "What’s your takeaways from this you have learned?"

"I wouldn’t have done anything differently," Humiston replied.  "The public filings speak for itself."

But some of the most incriminating allegations against Halunen are not part of that public record.

Narcotics for Employees?

The attorneys who made the original complaint against Halunen with OLPR suggest in a brief filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court, that OLPR only scratched the surface, and may have curated the evidence to fit a negotiated agreement.

In an appeal brief filed on October 26, attorney Matthew Pelikan writes:

"The record also contains significant evidence of unethical conduct that is not found in the Stipulation, including allegations that Respondent (Halunen) provided illegal narcotics to firm employees (who understood that accepting narcotics from Respondent was important to preserve their positions at the firm) and routinely provided alcohol to underage persons."

No allegations of drug use are contained in Halunen's stipulated agreement with OLPR.

Pelikan, who is representing the two victims, D.S. and T.G., claims to have incriminating evidence Humiston refuses to consider.

Pelikan writes that attorneys have asked OLPR’s director, Susan Humiston "to subpoena them for a complete record. For reasons only known to the Director, she has refused to do so."

FOX 9 has spoken on background with two other Twin Cities attorneys who represent other men prepared to accuse Halunen of sexual harassment.

‘Vanishingly small’?

In a memorandum attached to the stipulated agreement, OLPR director Humiston writes that Halunen began treatment with a psychologist and marriage counselor and was "diagnosed with and initiated treatment for an undisclosed condition."

Humiston writes that Halunen’s treating psychologist concludes there is "a vanishingly small, virtually no, probability of recurrence of the behavior."

But Pelikan’s brief with the Minnesota Supreme Court disputes that characterization and says Halunen lied and tried to undermine witnesses, obstructed the OLPR investigation, and has "lied to OLPR about the proposed scope of mitigating conduct."

Pelikan says Halunen has also "publicly contradicted his stated contrition and mischaracterized his admitted conduct."

In a statement Sunday to FOX 9, Halunen said, "We stand by the OLPR’s in-depth review, and I am willing to accept the recommended suspension.  My actions in question are from 6 years ago and have been settled with the former employees."

"Actions by competing lawyers should be viewed as such, and I remain deeply sorry for the actions described in the petition by the OLPR," Halunen added.

In response, Pelikan issued his own statement, saying "It’s no surprise that he (Halunen) is happy with getting a slap on the wrist."

"Mr. Halunen is correct that some of the claims against him were settled.  The day Chris Madel, Jenny Robbins, or I am considered to be in ‘competition’ with Clayton Halunen is the day we’ll quit," Pelikan said.

From McD’s to Administrative Assistant

As part of that stipulated agreement on October 5, Halunen "unconditionally admit(ted) the allegations" in the petition.

That petition describes predatory and coercive behavior to extract sexual favors from the two young men as a condition of their continued employment. 

Halunen met D.S., who worked at McDonald’s, through a dating app in 2014. At the time, Halunen was 50 years old, and D.S. was 19. 

D.S. began working at Halunen Law as an administrative assistant in December 2014.

At a holiday party, Halunen grabbed D.S.’s buttocks.  Later that month D.S. spent the night with Halunen and his husband in their bed, when Halunen touched and fondled D.S., while he pretended to be asleep. 

The unwelcome behavior continued at work, where Halunen repeatedly tried to kiss D.S. in the elevator, sent him flirtatious texts soliciting sex and explicit photos, and physically touched and groped him in an aggressive manner.

In 2015, Halunen arranged to meet D.S. in a downtown hotel room for sex. D.S. said he felt his job was in jeopardy if he did not consent. 

D.S. resigned from the firm in July 2017.  Two years later he served Halunen with a demand letter outlining the sexual harassment he experienced at the firm.

Halunen told D.S. that if he discussed the allegations with a lawyer, he would pursue criminal charges against D.S.

Not the ‘Jackpot’

Halunen’s behavior continued with T.G., a second-year law student who met Halunen for drinks in April 2017.  On the spot, Halunen offered T.G. a position as a summer extern.

T.G. said he "thought (he) had hit the jackpot and somehow got lucky."

During a business trip to California in 2017, Halunen arranged for him and T.G. to sleep in the same room, where Halunen made sexual advances that were rejected. 

Halunen would often send T.G. sexually suggestive messages and repeatedly tried to touch him, according to the stipulation.

During a trip to Halunen’s cabin, he attempted to touch T.G. on his upper thigh.  Again, the sexual overture was rejected.

Later that evening, Halunen texted T.G., "So, I thought it would make sense to clarify where we are as I see it.  Going forward our relationship will be employee/employer.  There will be no guarantee of employment – you will earn any position at the firm based upon your performance – nothing more or less," Halunen wrote. 

T.G. then reported Halunen’s behavior to another partner at the firm.  He resigned from the firm in August 2017.

In May 2018, Halunen sent a vaguely threatening Facebook message to T.G. that he needed to disclose his employment with Halunen Law to the Board of Law Examiners (BLE). As part of that process, Halunen would complete a character assessment of T.G.

"I wanted to make sure that this did not slip your mind. I’d hate for you to fail to disclose something as important as prior employment," Halunen said in his Facebook message.

In June 2018, Halunen sent an email to T.G. threatening to report him to the U.S. Attorney for committing fraud in a grant application. However, the allegations against T.G. were meritless.

"Approve it, or Not"

Another LPRB board member, Michael Friedman, was dismissive of any controversy over the Halunen matter, saying, "The office (OLPR) has entered into a stipulation. The court (Minnesota Supreme Court) can approve it or not approve it."

The role of the OLPR and its board, LPRB, is often confused by the public.  The board oversees appeals and findings of probable cause against lawyers. The director has the role of negotiating settlements if that takes place before a finding of the LPRB.

The revelations mark a remarkable fall from grace for Halunen, who has marketed himself as a "fearless, tenacious, and successful plaintiff’s" attorney who is "creating meaningful social change."

The Halunen Law website has no mention of its namesake’s recent discipline agreement but does boast of the multi-million-dollar settlements he has litigated in whistleblower, class action, and sexual harassment lawsuits.

In a statement after the discipline was announced, Halunen offered his "deepest apologies and sincerest regret" to the two former employees.

"Several years ago, when the events in the OLPR petition took place, I was going through a difficult personal period.  But I have committed to understanding my actions which led to poor judgment, including intensive therapy and personal reflection. Since the time these events took place over six years ago, I have done a tremendous amount of work to ensure I avoid similar mistakes in the future," Halunen said in the statement.

Halunen Law is updating its anti-discrimination and respectful workplace policies, established an employee complaint hotline, and has removed Clayton Halunen from all hiring decisions, the statement said.