Girlfriends (ITV)If, like me, you enjoyed Kay Mellor’s comedy drama Girlfriends on ITV, you may have cringed at some of the artistic licence deployed when dealing with aspects of the age discrimination claim being brought by Miranda Richardson’s character against her boss (and lover), played by Anthony Head. However, it has neatly highlighted the particular difficulties that can arise when workplace disputes get a bit too close to home.

A real life family dispute has been playing out in the Manchester Employment Tribunal and, more recently, in the Employment Appeal Tribunal. There is a major clue in the name of the case: Mrs J Feltham, B Feltham (Maintenance) Limited and Ms H Feltham v Feltham Management Limited, Mr D Feltham and Mr M Feltham. Feltham Management is a long established family business, specialising in property management, particularly in respect of student lettings. Jane Feltham is the claimant. She has three brothers, David, Martin and Stephen, all of whom were respondents in the Employment Tribunal claim. They all worked for the family business which was founded by their father. Hazel, the adult child of David, worked for the company as a clerical assistant and Jane’s husband was Mr Eckersall, a self-employed joiner who did work for the company.

In August 2013 it came to light that Mr Eckersall had been sending inappropriate texts and Facebook messages to his niece, Hazel. On the same day he told his wife, Jane, that he was leaving her because he had feelings for Hazel. Jane confronted Hazel, accusing her of inappropriate conduct, but she denied that she had done anything wrong. Jane’s brother David got involved and told Jane that it was her fault because she did not take Mr Eckersall’s name on marriage, did not respect him as head of the household and suggested that these (among other reasons) were why he wanted Hazel. Jane was upset and left work. She did not return.

With support from David, Hazel took over Jane’s duties as office manager. The company stopped paying Jane from the end of August, but she remained a director as well as continuing to receive benefits including a company car and credit card. In September Jane met with Hazel and apologised to her for shouting. Hazel refused to accept the apology. Jane met Stephen on 9 September and said that she was ready to return to work Stephen told her that this would not be possible. Attempts at a reconciliation followed, involving the vicar of the church they attended and another brother, Alan. They were unsuccessful.

In June 2014 Jane suggested mediation. There was no reply until October when David, Martin and Stephen, having taken legal advice, sent her a letter including the following:

“(1) You walked out of the business on Thursday 15th August 2013 and did not come back.
(2) The Company took this as your resignation and as such your employment with the Company ended on that date. …
(3) There is, therefore, no entitlement for you to receive any salary from 15th August 2013 to the present time and you are not entitled to any salary going forward.”

The letter asserted that personal benefits had been maintained only as a matter of goodwill. Jane instructed solicitors, as did the company. She was sent a letter dated 15 December 2014 saying that she had been taken off payroll and her P45 had been issued. She took this as her dismissal and commenced Employment Tribunal proceedings.

At the Tribunal, it was found that the effective date of termination of employment was 15 December 2014. The company had asserted that the effective date of termination was 30 October 2014. If that was correct then the tribunal complaint would have been time barred. The Tribunal also found that she was unfairly dismissed because there was no potentially fair reason for dismissal and that there should not be a reduction in compensation on the ground that she contributed to her dismissal or because, had correct procedure been followed, the dismissal would have been fair.

Jane had also been prevented from attending work so she was entitled to her wages from September 2013 onwards. She was also entitled to payment for accrued but untaken holiday pay.

The Tribunal also found that the withholding of salary constituted direct sex discrimination. Finally the treatment of Jane by David on 15 August 2013 also constituted direct sex discrimination.

The company appealed on various grounds.

At the Employment Appeal Tribunal His Honour Judge Richardson held that the claim was brought in time. There was no evidence that, had a fair procedure been followed, this could have resulted in a fair dismissal and no need to apply a reduction for any alleged contributory conduct on the part of the claimant.

However, the Employment Tribunal did not sufficiently explain the basis for its finding of direct sex discrimination concerning the failure to make payments to the claimant. The fundamental question was whether the non-payment to her was on the ground of her sex. There needed to be an evaluation of the explanation given for the treatment of the claimant which was missing from the Tribunal judgment. There was no doubt that the conduct was unreasonable, but was it attributable to sex discrimination? In the absence of an adequate analysis this aspect of the matter was remitted back to the Tribunal for further consideration.

The case demonstrates how far matters can go when personal and family issues spill over into the workplace. It is hard to imagine the extent of the impact of the court proceedings on those concerned. Sadly, it also demonstrates how far family members can take a family dispute, particularly when it involves affairs of the heart.