People often take the view that they can be quite blasé about their contractual obligations, mainly because employers often take the view that suing them is more trouble than it is worth. However, a recent High Court judgment shows that this is a risky course of action and the consequences for serious breaches can be very severe.
OCS Group UK Limited provides services in the aviation industry. It had a contract to provide cleaning and other services to British Airways at Heathrow Airport. In February 2017 it lost the contract which was awarded to a competing firm, Omni Serv Limited. Mr Jagdeep Dadi worked for OCS providing services under the contract until 28 February 2017, when his employment was TUPE transferred to Omni Serv. On 27 February OCS issued proceedings against Mr Dadi and others, seeking declaratory relief (an order determining the rights of the parties without awarding damages or directing anything to be done), an injunction against the defendants and damages for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and/or breach of confidence. It was alleged that they had transmitted confidential documents and information to their home email addresses or external storage devices and that they had made unlawful use of them and/or transmitted them to third parties.
In Mr Dadi’s case, it was claimed that, between 2014 and February 2017, he had sent confidential documents to his personal web-based email account, including information about the logistics and costs of providing aircraft cleaning and other services to British Airways.
The matter came before Mr Justice Marcus Smith on 27 February, without prior notice to Mr Dadi. He granted an interim injunction against Mr Dadi (and others), prohibiting him from disclosing confidential information belonging to OCS and requiring him to provide information about prior disclosures to third parties. He was ordered to retain hard copy and electronic documents, pending a further hearing. He was also ordered not to disclose the existence of the proceedings and the possibility of proceedings against others to anyone other than his legal advisers.
He decided not to defend the underlying proceedings and a default judgment was entered against him.
As is usual in such cases the order of Mr Justice Marcus Smith included a penal notice which warned him that disobedience of the order rendered him liable to be imprisoned or fined or to have his assets seized. He was served with the order at Heathrow by in-house counsel for OCS at 3.10 p.m. on 27 February. While doing so she drew his attention to the penal notice on the front page of the order and read it to him. She also advised him to obtain legal advice as a matter of urgency.
There was a further hearing on 3 March. Mr Dadi was represented by a barrister, Angus Gloag. Somewhat surprisingly Mr Gloag made various admissions to Mr Justice Marcus Smith on behalf of his client, including that:
- having been served with the order he phoned his manager, Mr Ahitan, and told him about it;
- after speaking with Mr Atihan, he deleted all emails from his mobile phone;
- on the following day he carried a mass deletion of some 8000 emails from what was assumed to be his web-based email account with AOL; and
- he told friends and family about the order.
In a subsequent witness statement he said that he had provided confidential information belonging to OCS to Mr Atihan between September 2016 and February 2017, including working rosters relating to British Airways and Virgin Airlines. He received no payment from Mr Atihan. He said that he had done so because he had known Mr Atihan since 1985 and he asked for the information. He had been his manager for 18 years and he trusted him. He also said that not appreciated the significance of what he did at the time.
In a further statement he said that he was not experienced in legal matters and he was naive in providing the information to Mr Atihan. He said that it had never crossed his mind that he would become involved in illegal activity. Mr Dadi submitted that a term of imprisonment would be disastrous for him, in terms of his work and family, his standing in the Sikh community, as well as the impact on his elderly and unwell mother. Once he had realised what he had done wrong he fully co-operated. He said that he was truly sorry for his breaches and described himself as having become unwittingly involved in a commercial dispute.
Nonetheless, having considered that imprisonment should be a punishment of last resort, Mrs Justice Rose, sitting on 6 July, decided that
…a short term of imprisonment of six weeks must be imposed on Mr Dadi to mark the court’s strong disapproval of his conduct and to act as a deterrence both in respect of his further compliance with the orders of the court and as a warning to others who might be tempted to flout the court’s orders in this manner.
She noted that the contempts were deliberate and contumacious breaches, particularly the extensive deletions of emails the following day. He had no-one to blame but himself, since he must have realised that he was doing precisely what the order prohibited him from doing. However, he received considerable credit for his early admission of the breaches once he obtained legal advice and for his co-operation. His apology was noted, as was his “sincere and heartfelt” remorse.
The sentence provides a stark reminder that breaches of orders resulting from civil breaches can result in very severe consequences. I often heard it said that claims against employees or, more often, former employees do not get anywhere and involve a lot of time, trouble and expense. However, in this case, there was significant damage caused to the former employer and it demonstrates the potential consequences. It also serves as a useful reminder to those who think that they can take such matters lightly.