“Overpromoted” practice manager constructively dismissed following bullying by “brusque and blunt” doctor

As I have pointed out over many years. pursuing a claim for constructive unfair dismissal can be a risky course of action because, for the former employee, it brings with it the added burden of having to demonstrate that the employer’s conduct was so unsatisfactory that it established a fundamental breach of a term of the contract of employment, sufficient for the employee to be entitled to treat the breach as operating to terminate the contract. If there is no fundamental breach then there has been no dismissal, hence, there can be no unfair dismissal.

In the case of Williams v Meddygfa Rhydbach Surgery and Doctors Morris, Haque and Smits, Mrs Williams was the practice manager of a rural surgery operated in partnership by the named doctors. She had commenced work in September 1986 as a receptionist and in 1996 was promoted to practice manager at the Botwnog Pwllheli Surgery. According to the judgment, from 2014 the practice found itself in “challenging circumstances”, both financially and in terms of “difficult interpersonal relationships” between admin and clerical staff on one side and the partners on the other. Numerous complaints were raised and ten members of staff identified Dr Smits’ manner as causing distress. He was described as being “direct, brusque and blunt in his manner”. he was also described as “aggressive” and “irascible”. Employment Judge Ryan found that his management style was “at least robust and was often overbearing and, to the Claimant at least, intimidating”. Accordingly, he found that Mrs Williams’ perception that Dr Smits bullied, harassed and intimidated her was “genuine and reasonable”.

The partners had a generally low opinion of Mrs Wiliams. They thought that she was perhaps promoted beyond her ability and that she was in effect working “at the level of a glorified receptionist”. She was not pro-active or enthusiastic as a manager and she had caused concern when she overpaid a caretaker £12,000.

In June 2014 she was called into a meeting during which her performance was criticised. She was surprised and upset and was told that she was to be subjected to performance management. However, she was not offered training or professional management guidance. She was not set targets or issued with any explicit warnings.

In late 2014 Mrs Williams asked whether she could be made redundant. Her request was refused because the partners were concerned that they might not be able to find a replacement.

A practice manager, Deborah Kalaji, was brought in to conduct a “root and branch review of the practice concentrating on managerial improvement”. By this stage Dr Smits acknowledged that Mrs Williams might claim constructive dismissal.

Can gross negligence amount to gross misconduct?

When we advise SMEs that are contemplating steps which might lead to the termination of an employee’s employment, one of the first steps is to establish one of the “potentially fair reasons” for dismissal. As most readers will know they are (1) conduct or misconduct, (2) capability or performance, (3) redundancy, (4) to avoid breaking the law (e.g. a driver losing their licence) and (5) the sweeping-up provision referred to as “some other substantial reason” (section 98(2) Employment Rights Act 1996). Capability or performance is normally broken down further to separate dismissals for incapacity (such as by reason of extended sickness absence) from poor performance (such as a failure to improve to an acceptable standard having been placed on a performance improvement plan).

Normally it is important to decide the basis on which to proceed from the outset since, otherwise, it is unlikely that it will be possible to show that a fair procedure was followed. However, there are exceptions and an example can be found in the decision of the Court of Appeal in Adesokan v Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Limited.

Mr Adesokan was accused of undermining the Sainsbury’s “Talkback Procedure”. This is a long-established scheme whereby staff are encouraged to be engaged, motivated and to take pride in their work. It also provides a means of quantifying and assessing the level of engagement of staff. As part of the process participating staff are able to provide information in strict confidence concerning other staff and, particularly, line and senior managers. Results of participation in the process can affect performance progression as well as influencing decisions concerning, pay, bonuses and staff deployment. It would be fair to say that it is at the heart of Sainsbury’s personnel procedures.

In June 2013 Mr Adesokan was working with a human resources partner, Mr Briner. Mr Briner sent what is described in the judgment as a “wholly inappropriate email” to the managers of five stores, which included the following:
Here is our opportunity to show everyone how amazing we are at colleague engagement….

I think you should focus predominantly on getting your most enthusiastic colleagues to fill in the survey; using your huddles and briefings as a way of engaging these people. Slightly different to other years 100% completion is less important as long as you have a completion rate above 60% you will get a well-rounded view of your store.

So focus on the Colleague Engagement Index questions and less on 100% completion; let us know how it goes and please do ask us for any help and guidance!
It appeared that the email was sent by both Mr Adesokan and Mr Briner but it turned out that it was sent only by Mr Briner and Mr Adesokan knew nothing about it. It was sent to coincide with the commencement of the Talkback Procedure. Judge Gore QC, sitting in the High Court, observed that the email offended the philosophy of the Procedure and was likely to compromise the results.

Mr Adesokan became aware on 24 June that the email had been sent. He asked Mr Briner to clarify what he meant with the store managers. He didn’t do so and Mr Adesokan did not follow up his enquiry. By 1 July Mr Briner had still not responded to the request for clarification but Mr Adesokan did not report or seek to remedy the problem. In fact, he did nothing at all about it. However, someone else sent a copy of the email to Sainsbury’s CEO on 13 September and he commenced an investigation. The upshot was that Mr Adesokan was summarily dismissed on 25 October. The reasons given were as follows:
You were accountable for Talkback on your region, the key colleague satisfaction metric.

You were aware that your HR partner had communicated to stores in a way that deliberately set out to manipulate the Talkback scores on your region.

You failed to take any adequate steps to rectify this serious situation.

Together, it is my belief that these demonstrate gross negligence on your part which is tantamount to Gross Misconduct.
Mr Adesokan commenced High Court proceedings for wrongful dismissal, on the basis that what he had done did not constitute gross misconduct.

Can workers claim injury to feelings for a breach of the Working Time Regulations 1998?

This question was recently considered by The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in the case of Santos Gomes v Higher Level Care Ltd UKEAT/0017/16.
The Facts
The Claimant, Miss Santos Gomes was successful in proving that her employer, Higher Level Care Ltd, had failed in their duty to provide her with 20 minute rest breaks as required by the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR).  or this element of the claim she was awarded compensation for her financial loss in the amount of £1,220. The Employment Tribunal however refused to entertain a further compensation claim for injury to feelings.

The Claimant brought an appeal to the EAT on the basis that Regulation 30(4) did not prevent an award for injury to feelings being made, compensation for injury to feelings was not restricted to discrimination laws, and the WTR did not provide an adequate remedy for this as is required by EU Law.
The Law
Regulation 12 of the WTR states that a worker is entitled to a minimum rest break of 20 minutes when working for more than 6 hours per day. Subsequently a worker is permitted to bring a complaint against their employer for a breach of these entitlements. When in such occasions an ET finds in favour of the Claimant, a declaration must be made in this regard and an award of compensation can be made.

The WTR state only that any compensation awarded should be what the ET considers to be ‘just and equitable’ taking into account all of the circumstances and the employers default in refusing to allow the worker to exercise their right (Reg 30(4)(a)) and any subsequent loss sustained by that worker attributable to the matters complained of (Reg 30(4)(b)).  Whilst compensation for injury to feelings is available in some types of employment law claims (mostly for discrimination), you cannot claim such compensation for breach of contract or indeed unfair dismissal claims.
The decision of the EAT

Can a demotion amount to a breach of contract/constructive dismissal claim?

In the case of Gibbs v Leeds United Football Club Ltd [2016] EWHC 960 (QB) (28 April 2016) the matter in question concerned a contract of employment between the Claimant (Mr Gibbs) and the Respondent (Leeds United FC).

 

The question was whether the Claimant had been constructively dismissed due to a repudiatory breach of his contract of employment by Leeds United, or whether he chose to leave the club without there being any breach of contract.  There was a also a further question in respect of whether the Claimant acted unreasonably in failing to mitigate his losses by rejecting the offer of the role of Head Coach after he had resigned.

By way of background information, the claimant’s contract of employment stated that he must “diligently exercise such powers and perform such duties as may from time to time be assigned to him by the Chief Executive and the Board at which are commonly undertaken and exercised by the managers of Professional football club companies of the Company’s status in relation to the playing, coaching and scouting aspects of the Company’s undertaking (included but not limited to player conditioning and the development of tactical instructions and playing standards generally) and in the discharge of the same he shall:…comply with all reasonable and lawful instructions and requests given:…(B) to the Assistant Manager by the Chairman; (C) to the Assistant Manager by the Company; (D) to the Assistant Manager by the Chief of the Executive…and perform such hours of work as may from time to time reasonably be required of him…”

 

The Claimant was engaged on a fixed term three year contract, however after around eight months of employment the Respondent Company was purchased by a Mr Cellino.  The Respondent thereafter wanted to recruit their own management team, and agreed with the Claimant’s manager to end the manager’s contract early – the Claimant therefore expected that the same thing would happen to him.

 

A new manager was subsequently recruited by the Respondent along with a new assistant manager, however the Claimant was not offered a termination package.  The Claimant did express during a meeting with the owner of the Company that if work was not available for him, he would be happy for his contract to be terminated if a termination package could be agreed.

 

An agreement was not met however and the Claimant subsequently reported to work under the new manager.  Unfortunately they did not get on and the Claimant received an email stating that his role had been changed and he was now required to train the Respondent’s youth players instead of the first team.  The Claimant felt that this instruction constituted a demotion and subsequently resigned.

 

Four months later, strangely, the Claimant was offered the role of manager following the dismissal of his predecessor.  He refused this offer, stating that the treatment he had received by the Respondent had undermined his relationship with his fellow employees.  The Claimant brought a breach of contract constructive dismissal claim against the Respondent.

 

The High Court held

Commission must be included in holiday pay

You may remember some time ago we reported on the groundbreaking decision of the European Court of Justice in Lock v British Gas. The impact of this judgment was significant since this is the case that held that holiday pay should include provision for commission that the employee would have earned had they not been on holiday.

Given the financial implications of this decision to employers nationwide British Gas sought leave to appeal the decision on grounds that the Employment Tribunal should not have followed the Bear Scotland case because that decision was about whether overtime should be incorporated into holiday pay and argued that in doing so the EAT had wrongly interpreted the wording of the Working Time Regulations to conform with the EU Working Time Directive (No. 2003/88) that commission should be included in holiday pay.

The question in this appeal was whether the previous Employment Tribunal was right to insert wording into the Working Time Regulations to allow commission and similar payments to be included in holiday pay calculations. The Employment Appeal Tribunal held that they were, they rejected the appeal and upheld the previous decision that commission payments should be included in the calculation of holiday pay. Mr Justice Singh commented that such an interpretation would not go ‘against the grain’ of the legislation given that Parliament’s purpose in enacting the WTR was to comply with its obligation to fully implement the Directive. The EAT took the view that if the Bear Scotland case was wrongly decided then, that was an issue for the Court of Appeal to rule on.

However, we are not left without difficulty given that the EAT failed to provide any practical considerations or guidance on how the calculation of any holiday pay should be worked out.

Summary dismissal following disclosure of confidential information

It is generally (and sensibly) thought that summary dismissal without notice should only occur in the most clear cut cases. In Farnan v Sunderland Athletic Football Club Limited the High Court considered the circumstances in which such action might be considered appropriate, as well as shedding light on the somewhat unappealing aspects of the football industry behind the headlines.

Michael Farnon has a background in the sports marketing industry, having had jobs associated with Manchester United, Sheffield United, Jordan F1 and AC Parma. In about June 2010 he met Niall Quinn, then chairman of Sunderland AFC and discussed the Club’s sponsorship profile. In August 2011 he took up a post with the Club on a salary of £190,000 plus benefits and a discretionary bonus. There was a contractual notice period of one month and provisions for termination without notice in certain circumstances.

Mr Farnon had been involved in a business called Red Strike Marketing (RSM) in which his wife was a director and the sole shareholder. Since his email account with Sunderland AFC (SAFC) had not been set up he continued to use his RSM email account until September 2013 when the SAFC account was set up and he was asked to use it. Mr Farnan secured shirt sponsorship deals for the Club.

In March 2013 the new owner of SAFC, Ellis Short, sacked manager Martin O’Neill and appointed in his place Paulo di Canio, former manager of Swindon Town FC. Mr di Canio is a controversial character, having previously expressed very right-wing views. His appointment led to the resignation of one of SAFC’s directors, David Miliband. This was a crisis period for the Club and created problems for Mr Farnan, particularly in connection with the second shirt deal (with Bidvest) which had not by then been signed. There was a fairly terse exchange of emails between Ms Byrne, the CEO, and Mr Farnan. He felt that he had been ostracised and forwarded one of the emails from Ms Byrne to Mr Miliband. Later that day he contacted colleagues looking for alternative employment and enclosing in support a presentation that he had prepared while working at SAFC.

In April 2013, while attending the Soccerex trade exhibition in Manchester he had what he thought was an off the record conversation with a journalist. The conversation was subsequently reported by Bloomberg. At around the same time Ms Byrne prevented Mr Farnan from attending events in Florence, London and South Africa.

In May 2013 the CEO became concerned that Mr Farnan was sending emails from his SAFC account to his wife. She accessed the account and became upset because she read what she considered to be comments that were personal to her.

Also in May Mr Farnan contacted his lawyer because he felt that things had become unbearable. A further planned trip to Malta was cancelled by Ms Byrne and Mr Farnan consulted his GP about his stress. All this was happening at the same time as a relegation battle for the Club, which it won with the result that the Bidvest shirt sponsorship deal was confirmed.

On 15 May 2013 Mr Farnan went to the office and was met by Ms Byrne and the head of HR, Ms Goulden. Ms Goulden told him that he was being suspended for gross misconduct and he was escorted off the premises. He was suffering from stress and made an appointment to see his GP on 21 May. On 20 May he received a letter and some papers from SAFC, in connection with a disciplinary hearing scheduled for 23 May. He saw his GP the following day and was signed off for 14 days. He asked for an adjournment of the hearing, which was refused, and therefore took place in his absence. The charges were found to be proven and he was summarily dismissed by a letter sent on the same day. An appeal was unsuccessful.

In May 2014 Mr Farnan commenced proceedings claiming wrongful dismissal and unpaid bonus (claimed at £964,300). Shortly before trial SAFC sought to amend its defence by providing updated figures relating to the value of sponsorship deals (allowed) and by introducing a further allegation concerning an allegedly offensive image sent by Mr Farnan from his SAFC email account (also allowed).

Six year time limit for contract claims does not apply in tribunals

Pursuant to section 5 of the Limitation Act 1980 there is a time limit of six years to bring a breach of contract claim, running from the “the date on which the cause of action accrued”. However, in Grisanti v NBC News Worldwide Inc, an employment tribunal has held that the six year time limit does not apply to breach of contract claims brought in an employment tribunal. In doing so it has declined to follow an earlier decision in which it was held that the six year limit did apply.

Employment Judge Wade, sitting in the Central London Tribunal, was asked to consider the issue at a preliminary hearing on 11 June. The judgment has recently been handed down. Ms Grisanti claims (among other things) that her employer deducted national insurance contributions from her salary between 1996 and 2003. However, when she came to claim her pension in 2015 she was told by HMRC that no payments were made for those seven years. The result is that she is entitled to a greatly reduced pension.

The deductions were calculated correctly and Ms Grisanti does not allege that her employer has kept the money. However, at the time of the hearing it was unclear what had happened to it. However, HMRC had commenced an enquiry.

NBC took the opportunity at the hearing to argue that the claim should be struck out in any event on the basis that the breach of contract claim was out of time, as was a claim under Part II of the Employment Rights Act, commonly referred to as a “Wages Act claim”. It was contended that not only was the claim not brought within three months of termination (as extended by the ACAS early conciliation scheme), it was also subject to section 5 of the Limitation Act 1980 so that it was barred on the basis that more than six years had passed since the cause of action accrued in 2003.

The Employment Tribunals Extension of Jurisdiction Order 1994 allows breach of contract claims to be brought in an employment tribunal. The objective was to avoid duplication of claims in courts and tribunals. NBC submitted that, logically, the time limit of six years must also have been imported otherwise there was the risk of a flood of old claims and claimants would have the right to pursue claims in tribunals that could not be pursued in courts. More particularly a tribunal only has jurisdiction if “the claim is one…which a court in England and Wales would under the law for the time being in force have jurisdiction to hear and determine”. It seems to be a pretty compelling argument, not least because it was successful in the 2012 employment tribunal case of Taylor v Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Trust.

Government launches consultation on simplification of tax treatment of termination payments

One of the most contentious areas in the field of employment law concerns the tax treatment of settlement payments on the termination of employment. In the 20 years plus that I have been dealing with employment law matters the law in this area has never been entirely settled and there has been a long series of often contradictory decisions, such that it is possible to find a decision to match almost any chosen stance. As recently as two months ago I was writing about a decision of the First Tier Tax Tribunal which appeared to suggest that many such payments are not taxable.

Against this background, on 24 July the Government published a consultation document on “Simplification of the Tax and National Insurance Treatment of Termination Payments”. The consultation is open until 16 October and seeks views on:

removing the distinction between contractual (currently taxable) and non-contractual (currently generally non-taxable) termination payments and whether this will make the process easier to understand for employers and employees;
whether the income tax and National Insurance treatment of termination payments should be aligned;
which of the existing tax exemptions should be retained; and
whether new tax exemptions should be introduced.

Research by the Government suggests that there is a widespread but mistaken belief that the first £30,000 of any pay-off is tax free. Many employers do not understand how the current provisions should operate in practice. It is also difficult and time-consuming for employers to work out which parts of a settlement payment are tax free and which are subject to tax.

The research also suggested that the current £30,000 would probably be unaffordable if it applies to both contractual and non-contractual payments.

One potential approach referred to in the consultation is to create a new exemption which increases proportionately with the number of years worked. The minimum service requirement (to qualify for the exemption) would be two years. Qualifying service would have to be with the existing employer or continuing service including a former employer if the employee was TUPE transferred. Such exemptions might only apply in the event of redundancy, compulsory or voluntary. An example provided is that of an employee receiving a termination payment after 10 years’ service of £13,750 comprising statutory redundancy (£4750), pay in lieu of notice (£3000), an ex gratia payment of £5000 and £1000 holiday pay. If the exemption was set at £6000 after two years and then an extra £1000 for each additional year the exemption would be £14,000 and the entire payment would therefore be tax free. In contrast, if someone’s employment is terminated because of poor performance and that triggers a severance payment of £100,000, the full amount would be taxable.

Team poaching and springboard injunctions

Springboard injunctions are often granted in circumstances in which senior or key sales employees leave to work for a competitor. The name derives from the case of Bullivant v Ellis (1987) in which Mr Justice Falconer stated that the purpose of the injunction was “to prevent the defendants from taking unfair advantage of the springboard which…they must have built up by their misuse of the information in the card index”.

Most such injunctions are sought with a view to preventing misuse of confidential information (such as customer connections and contacts), serious breaches of contract or other unlawful conduct. Unsurprisingly, in the vast majority of cases the application for an injunction will be based on alleged breaches of post-termination covenants, such as those which are stipulated by non-compete and similar clauses.

However, there are limited instances in which an injunction may be obtained, even in the event that there are no such contractual provisions. In Willis v Jardine Lloyd Thompson, in a refreshingly brief judgment, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the decision of His Honour Judge Seymour to refuse to grant an interim injunction. He took the view that there was no point in granting an injunction because, in effect, the horse had bolted with the defection of a large number of employees to a competitor.

Willis is a major international insurance broker. It has a highly respected Fine Art, Jewellery and Specie Gifts Division and is the world leader in this sector with sales amounting to tens of millions of dollars each year. In a witness statement made by Willis’ CEO of Market Services, David Thomas, on 13 April 2015 he stated that some 30 employees from the department had left in the last 10 days. 22 left on Maundy Thursday, four left on 9 April, three on 10 April and two on the 13th. Those leaving included almost all the senior management team and key sales staff. Some 30 more junior staff were left. It turned out that they had all left to join a direct competitor, Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT). Mr Thomas thought that there would be a second wave of resignations and that this was as part of a coordinated attack. It was suspected that the underlying strategy was to weaken the department by the mass defections, thereby enabling JLT to acquire the whole department at a discounted price. 

actions from years ago can return to haunt employees

Evan Glyn Williams was employed by Ken Bates as a technical director with Leeds United FC from 2006. He was on a salary of £200,000 per year, terminable on 12 months’ notice. On 23 July 2013 he was given 12 months’ notice of termination, pursuant to the contract. This arose as part of a redundancy exercise. However, it subsequently came to light that, in March 2008, Mr Williams had used the Club’s email system to send an email with pornographic images attached to a male friend at another football club, Mr Dennis Wise. Photographs included “the fans”, “pictures from the club house, the shower” and included numerous images of female genitalia. As a result, on 30 July 2013, he was dismissed for gross misconduct, without further payments.

Following the summary dismissal it came to light that Mr Williams had sent the same email to a junior female employee at the Club and another male friend at another club, Mr Gus Poyet. In resisting Mr Williams’ claim the Club sought to rely on this additional information that had come to light following the dismissal.

Mr Williams contended that the conduct, while inappropriate, was not sufficient to justify summary dismissal and claimed the balance of his unpaid salary and other benefits.

The case was heard by Mr Justice Lewis, sitting in the High Court, on 9 to 11 February.