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).Details