Defamatory remarks said in confidence, judge rules

A district judge ruled that a mailroom clerk defamed a colleague by alleging verbal sexual harassment - but cleared him because the claims were voiced during a probe meant to discuss a spat between the two.

District Judge Seah Chi-Ling held that what Mr Pius Chai said was covered by qualified privilege. "He initially approached his superiors merely to seek a transfer and not to complain about the Plaintiff," he wrote in judgment grounds released on Wednesday.

Mr Chai had said he had been sexually harassed by the plaintiff - Mr Randall D' Souza, then an IT manager at CLSA Singapore - at a meeting on Aug 3, 2012, with the company's senior HR manager Toni Carroll and its country head Andrew Hartley.

The court heard that Mr Chai's complaint had been settled at the meeting, where both parties shook hands and parted. But Mr D' Souza said there was no pact then to "forgive and forget".

He sued Mr Chai in the High Court, with his lawyer Simon Tan arguing the words suggested he had behaved improperly towards Mr Chai.

Mr Chai's lawyers, Mr K.R. Manicka and Mr A. Thirumurthy, countered that although he had been sexually harassed, he had never intended to raise the harassment issue to management, and had done so only when asked why he wanted a transfer.

The judge found Mr Chai had not shown that the allegations against Mr D' Souza had taken place.

"Having regard to the totality of the evidence adduced before me, what I found more likely to have happened was that Plaintiff had on a number of occasions attempted to joke with Defendant, making certain references to the Defendant's butt, and by doing a Michael Jackson impersonation. This had made the defendant very uncomfortable and upset, and prompted him to seek an inter-office transfer."

The judge added that he took into account several factors, including the "rather congenial and informal work culture in the company, with senior management 'coming down to the staff level' and 'joking with (them)'.

Against this backdrop, I found it not improbable that (Mr D' Souza) would have thought it was all right to joke with (Mr Chai). (Mr Chai) was, however, disturbed and distressed by the jokes cracked. "

He dismissed both the defamation suit and the harassment counter-claim by Mr Chai.

Mr D' Souza, 50, who was retrenched in 2013, said yesterday he will be appealing the judgment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'Defamatory remarks said in confidence, judge rules'. Print Edition | Subscribe