Who is REALLY the Victim Here?

The recent EAT decision in Woodhouse v West North Homes Leeds is enough to make any employer’s hair stand on end but, on the facts, it would seem to be the right one, legally speaking if not on any other basis.  In this case, Mr Woodhouse claimed that his dismissal by his employer amounted to victimisation because he was dismissed for carrying out protected acts (bringing discrimination proceedings/raising grievances relating to discrimination).  Such acts will always be protected provided they are carried out in good faith even if the allegations of discrimination are misguided.

Mr Woodhouse, who is black, had, over a four year period, lodged ten internal grievances against his employer.  His grievances contained baseless allegations that he was being discriminated against because of his race.  In addition, he brought seven (unsuccessful) employment tribunal claims against the same employer, none of which were found to have had any basis in fact either.  

Many of you will be amazed that he managed to remain in employment for so long but eventually his employer did dismiss him, citing a fundamental breakdown in trust and confidence.  He (unsurprisingly) then brought a victimisation claim.  The employment tribunal, however, held that the dismissal did not amount to victimisation because the employer would similarly have dismissed any employee (irrespective of race) who had brought a similar number of merit-less grievances and claims. I, personally, give the employer credit for holding out for so long and it would seem that the employment tribunal felt the same way.  However, this judgment was clearly wrong as a victimisation claim does not require a comparator – that is only required in a straightforward discrimination claim.  To succeed in a victimisation claim, the Claimant need only establish that the less favourable treatment was as a result of his having,carried out a protected act in good faith.  In this case, there was no finding of bad faith which is why, on appeal, the EAT overturned the tribunal’s decision.

This is a really quite extreme example of how an employer can be damned whatever it does and I would argue that the definition of victimisation should be amended in light of it so that an act relating to a specific allegation of discrimination be no longer protected if it is repeated more than twice during a period of, say, two years (with this caveat being restricted to cover only cases where the allegations of discrimination are held to be unfounded).  

I would be very interested to know your thoughts.

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The Dismissal Vanishes!

Beware the employer who reinstates an employee following a successful appeal against dismissal but then seeks to impose conditions to the reinstatement, particularly if the original decision to dismiss was based upon a flawed disciplinary or capability procedure.

In the recent EAT case of Thomson v Barnet Primary Care Trust UKEAT/0247/12, a district nurse was summarily dismissed on capability grounds.  She lodged an appeal and was successful.  So far so good and the PCT probably felt it was out of the woods.  However, although she was reinstated with full back pay for the period between the initial dismissal and the outcome of the successful appeal, her employer, a primary care trust said she could only actually return to work if she accepted (a) a final written warning to remain on her file for three years; (b) attendance on a training programme and (c) a competency assessment.  She was suspended on full pay whilst she decided whether to accept these conditions.  After a period of time during which the PCT and the nurse were wrangling over these conditions, she resigned claiming constructive dismissal, stating that the reasons for her resignation were the fact that the PCT had committed significant contract breaches prior to her original dismissal and had compounded those breaches by seeking to impose new contractual terms upon her following her reinstatement.

The employment tribunal held that the Claimant, in accepting her pay whilst effectively suspended, had accepted the new conditions.   It also held that she was not able to rely upon any alleged breaches which occurred prior to her dismissal as she had effectively waived them by accepting her pay.

The EAT disagreed and upheld the Claimant’s appeal.   Although she never returned to her post, her employment had been reinstated, the effect of which was that there had been no dismissal.  The dismissal effectively vanished.  However, the primary care trust’s handling of the disciplinary process, combined with the subsequent imposition of the conditions, amounted to a repudiatory breach of her contract. The EAT held that the tribunal had erred in its conclusion that the employee had waived the right to complain about breaches which occurred prior to the original dismissal because the success of her appeal meant that she hadn’t actually ever been dismissed.  The dismissal was as if it had never taken place and as such the Claimant could not be found to have accepted the new contract terms or waived the previous breaches.

So what should an employer do when it decides to overturn a decision to dismiss on appeal?  In my opinion, the first thing the employer must decide is whether the success of the employee’s appeal was because of the employer’s own failure to follow its original procedure properly or whether it was because the employee brought new evidence to the appeal which meant the dismissal was no longer appropriate.  If the former (as in this case) then it would seem to me to be wholly inappropriate to try and impose a different sanction (even if the relevant procedure allowed for this) as the imposition of any sanction would be based upon a flawed procedure.

My advice in this case would be for the employer carry out the procedure again but this time correctly.  If, at the end of the process, it determined to dismiss or instead that some lesser sanction could be imposed in accordance with its own procedure, then it could be fairly confident in the safety of its decision.  However, if the employer determined when considering the employee’s appeal that the decision to invoke the procedure which led to the original decision to dismiss had not been the right decision, then the only option is to reinstate the employee without invoking any conditions.  It would also be very wise to apologise to the employee in either case!

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