Stacy Higa sexual harassment lawsuit: New life, more expenses

HILO — Ten years after an employment complaint alleged former Hilo Councilman and mayoral candidate Stacy Higa sexually harassed an aide, the case has taken on new life in the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

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HILO — Ten years after an employment complaint alleged former Hilo Councilman and mayoral candidate Stacy Higa sexually harassed an aide, the case has taken on new life in the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

The appeal, on the heels of an almost $250,000 settlement paid by the county to former aide Melissa Chang and her attorney, argues legal malpractice by the county for not providing Higa an appropriate defense, according to court documents. The county denied any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement.

The county had won a summary judgment on the issue in circuit court when it argued that Higa can’t prove that the charges and the county’s defense cost him the mayoral election.

Following the scandal, the two-term lawmaker received just 5.9 percent of votes in the 2008 primary election, giving him a distant fourth-place finish in the eight-candidate field.

“There are issues whether the county corporation counsel properly defended and assisted the client and didn’t turn against their client,” Honolulu attorney William Harrison, representing Higa, said Thursday.

“While acting in an intentional, reckless or negligent manner, Corporation Counsel uttered derogatory public statements adverse to Stacy’s interests while still acting as his counsel,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit names the county and former Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida. It asks the appeals court to reverse the circuit court order granting the county’s motion for summary judgment and remand the case back to a trial. Oral arguments have not been scheduled.

The county, meanwhile, has cross-appealed, asking the ICA to reverse the circuit court’s order denying the county attorney fees in the case. The County Council, in a March 2 executive session, voted 9-0 to continue using Honolulu attorney Calvin Young as outside counsel to handle the case. The council had previously approved paying the law firm up to $100,000 to defend the county against Higa’s claims.

The county notes in its answer brief that it “prevailed on summary judgment because the Higas’ claims rest purely on speculative allegations and they failed to meet their burden of proof to establish legal malpractice.” It adds that corporation counsel was defending the county, not Higa, in the lawsuit, and that Higa was advised to seek a private attorney.

“Sexual harassment is not considered an act within the course and scope of Mr. Higa’s employment as a council member,” and therefore corporation counsel was barred from representing him, the answering brief states.

While working as a legislative assistant for Higa in 2005 and 2006, Chang “was the subject of unwanted and unwelcome remarks, requests and attention from Council member Stacy Higa,” according to the complaint she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July 2007.

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Those remarks “consisted of numerous requests for dates, invitations to take trips, statements directed at a relationship with Mr. Higa, and a physical contact with her,” adds the complaint, which noted Higa was married.

Chang claimed she suffered “serious mental and emotional distress” because of a “hostile work environment,” causing her to quit her job in April 2006, her complaint alleged. Higa has, in the past, vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

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