A six-month suspension is "inadequate" to discipline attorney Clayton Halunen for sexually harassing two male co-workers and then threatening to pursue criminal charges if they exposed him, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
In a six-page order, the Supreme Court said the disgraced attorney will be barred from practicing law for at least a year and will have to 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 state Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR), he would have been automatically readmitted to the profession after six months.
The Supreme Court said OLPR's recommended discipline was not sufficient to protect the public and deter future professional misconduct.
"Halunen's misconduct is very serious," the court said. "Halunen targeted men who were vulnerable due to their age and socioeconomic status, encouraged them to work for his firm, and then sexually abused them. 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."
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, a spokesman for Halunen Law, said his client declined to comment on the Supreme Court's ruling. Previously, Halunen has apologized for his conduct, telling the Star Tribune he was going through a "difficult personal period" at the time he sexually harassed his employees.
Attorney Matthew Pelikan, who represented the two victims, said he is grateful the Supreme Court heeded calls for stronger punishment from his law firm and others.
"We think it is a great step forward," Pelikan said. "If Halunen wants to practice again, he is going to have to explain to the court why reinstatement is warranted."
The ruling is the latest embarrassment for OLPR, which was on the verge of dismissing the case against Halunen in 2020, state records show.
OLPR Director Susan Humiston was reappointed to a new two-year term in 2022 despite a scathing performance review by a state oversight board that blamed her for high turnover and a decline in the agency's quality of work.
The oversight board said some case files demonstrated "inadequate investigation" and "nonexistent analysis of important legal questions."
Humiston said she appreciates the high court's guidance, noting it will be "helpful to us in future cases." Some members of the state board that oversees OLPR objected to the six-month probation deal for Halunen, saying it was too lenient.
"It also is instructive for practicing lawyers, who should understand the potentially serious licensing consequences for ethics rule violations," said Humiston, who also expressed gratitude to Halunen's victims for "courageously" disclosing personal information "which 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 public view last year, some Twin Cities employment lawyers said Halunen's license to practice law should be permanently revoked because of the magnitude 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 a sworn statement, the man said that Halunen jumped into his bed naked while they were on a work-related trip to San Francisco and then climbed on top of him.
"I forcefully pushed him off," he told investigators.
Back in 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 leave the firm after three months when Halunen tried to get him to sleep in his bed on another work trip.
Another victim said Halunen fondled his genitals and tried to initiate sexual intercourse on at least two occasions, breaking off one encounter only after Halunen spotted his husband returning to the house. In 2015, Halunen threatened to fire the employee if he didn't have sex with him, according to his complaint to OLPR.
At least three lawyers left the firm after witnessing improper behavior from Halunen or hearing from co-workers about incidents of sexual misconduct, affidavits gathered by OLPR show. At least four of Halunen's employees have complained of his advances, with several obtaining out-of-court settlements, OLPR records and interviews show.
Pelikan said the burden will be on Halunen to show that he has changed his ways. In his 2022 statement to the newspaper, Halunen said he has removed himself from the hiring process and established a hotline for employee complaints. He said the firm also has updated its respectful workplace policies and hired a full-time human resource professional.
Pelikan said it is possible that the Supreme Court won't be swayed if Halunen seeks reinstatement. Two Supreme Court members dissented from this week's majority opinion, arguing that Halunen should be barred from practicing law for at least 18 to 24 months.
"A lot has to do with how Mr. Halunen conducts himself over the next year," Pelikan said. "As we 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 any of these conclusions are foregone."