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Former Public Defender Admits Sexual Harassment of Staff and Consents to Suspension of Law License for Five Years

Former Durham County Public Defender Robert Brown, Jr. was scheduled to appear before the North Carolina State Bar Disciplinary Hearing Commission last week, but the case was not heard. Instead, Mr. Brown and the Hearing Committee entered into a “Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order of Discipline by Consent” dated February 6, 2009, wherein Mr. Brown’s license to practice law in the State of North Carolina will be suspended for five years, effective thirty (30) days from the date of the order.

After three years of active suspension, Mr. Brown may apply for a stay of the remaining two years, if he complies with multiple conditions agreed to by the parties – including providing evidence that he has undergone evaluations by both a board-certified psychiatrist and “a psychiatrist who specializes in treating sexual offenders in the professions.” Both psychiatrists are required to provide sworn certifications that Mr. Brown does not suffer from “any condition creating a predisposition for inappropriate sexual behavior.” If the stay is granted under these conditions, he must obtain and pay for any psychiatric and psychological treatment recommended by either psychiatrist, and provide biannual reports from his medical providers stating that he has followed all treatment recommendations and that he is not a threat to the public if he practices law.

Per the February 6, 2009 consent order, Mr. Brown admitted to violating “Rule 8.4(d) of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct by engaging in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice by sexually harassing Janice Ingram, Rachel Allen, and Danielle Bruno, all who were employees of the Public Defender’s office whom defendant supervised, and by engaging in conduct that brought the office of the Public Defender into disrepute.”

The Hearing Committee’s “Findings of Fact”, based on the consent of the parties, include the following events, all of which occurred at the Durham County Public Defender’s office while Mr. Brown was the appointed Public Defender and had the authority to hire, fire and discipline his entire staff:

Danielle Bruno was hired as an assistant public defender in February 2005. A month after she started work, Mr. Brown told her that she was “too nervous and that if she couldn’t be comfortable around him she would not be able to keep her job.” He exhibited sexually inappropriate behavior towards her, including discussing her physical appearance, asking about her sexual activities and frequently calling her into his office to have these discussions behind closed doors – despite her efforts to stop him or avoid him. In October 2005, he discussed her interest in a permanent position which had become available with the Public Defender’s office but said if she wanted it, she had “three days to be his friend.” Ms. Bruno filed an action in December 2005, seeking Mr. Brown’s removal as the Public Defender, which resulted in his suspension with pay. On December 26, 2005, Mr. Brown resigned as Public Defender, effective January 31, 2006.

Janice Ingram was initially hired as a temporary full-time legal assistant in March 2005. She was a 29-year old divorcee with two young children. Mr. Brown offered her a flexible schedule so she could attend classes and care for her children. After she was hired, he began engaging her in “inappropriate and unwelcome intimate sexual conversations.” He promised to help her personally and professionally, including giving her pay increases, if she would “trust him” and “help him”, but also frequently remarked that it would be hard for her to find another job with flexible hours. He suggested that he wanted more than a working relationship, and touched her in sexually inappropriate ways.

Rachel Allen was hired as a legal assistant in August 2005. She was a 30-year old single mother whom Mr. Brown also offered a flexible schedule so that she could attend classes and care for her children. Soon after she was hired, he began behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner, including touching her on her waist and stomach, discussing her physical appearance and asking about her sexual activities, despite her efforts to stop him.

The Hearing Committee also found that Mr. Brown’s inappropriate actions interfered with the ability of Ms. Bruno, Ms. Ingram and Ms. Allen to perform their jobs and that his conduct harmed them. The Committee found that his conduct was aggravated by a prior disciplinary offense (1996 State Bar reprimand), a pattern of misconduct, multiple offenses, vulnerability of the victims and his substantial experience in the practice of law. Mitigating factors were the loss of his job as Public Defender and his participation in a lawyer’s assistance program. The Committee concluded that “[a]n active term of suspension is the only sanction that can adequately protect the public.”

Faith Herndon, a Durham attorney who represents Ms. Bruno, Ms. Ingram and Ms. Allen, states, “In the Consent Order Mr. Brown admitted to certain conduct, including sexual harassment. My clients have waited for years – literally – for that kind of admission and are very relieved. They’ve also waited for years for appropriate discipline by the Bar and appreciate the Bar’s work on this. There is a civil lawsuit pending in Wake County Superior Court, involving federal Title VII claims, and a tort claims action before the Industrial Commission. As to what will happen next in the civil cases, we are just moving along as steadily as we can so we’ll have to see, but we feel good about it.”

Ms. Bruno, Ms. Ingram and Ms. Allen are to be commended for making the difficult, but necessary decision to pursue all available legal remedies for their sexual harassment by Mr. Brown, including reporting his misconduct to the State Bar. These cases are especially sensitive for plaintiffs, made more difficult by the length of the judicial process and re-living the personal and humiliating nature of the inappropriate sexual acts themselves. No one should have to endure any type of sexual harassment in order to earn a living.

Ms. Herndon notes that what is especially interesting here is that the Bar censured Mr. Brown for behavior towards his co-workers and employees, rather than his clients. “It was a little unusual in that regard and it’s important that the Bar recognized two things here – that a lawyer’s obligations extend to his subordinates as well as his clients; and that sexual harassment is inconsistent with a lawyer’s obligations and the exercise of justice.”

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Lynne J. DeVenny, N.C. State Bar Certified Paralegal

Owner & Virtual Paralegal, DeVenny Paralegal Services

Email: lynne.devenny[at]gmail.com

Telephone: 336-582-0003

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Meet Lynne:

Lynne DeVenny is a North Carolina State Bar Certified Paralegal with over 27 years of experience working on complex litigation cases, including medical malpractice, personal injury, workers’ compensation, and Social Security disability.

Disclosure: I am not a lawyer and cannot provide legal representation or legal advice.

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