January 13, 2007

Thornett v. Scope: Unfairly dismissed after bullying claim

Case report - Thornett v. Scope: [2006] EWCA Civ 1600

The claimant worked for the employers in a managerial capacity. Following a complaint by a colleague who alleged that the claimant had been bullying and harassing him, the employers made a finding of unsatisfactory conduct against the claimant and gave her a final written warning.

The claimant, who did not accept that the finding was correct, made it clear that she thought it would be very difficult for her to continue to work with the colleague who had made the complaint. The difficulties between the claimant and her colleague were not resolved and ultimately the claimant was dismissed.

The claimant's complaint of unfair dismissal was upheld by the Employment Tribunal which found that a reasonable employer would have taken further steps to encourage the parties to work together.

In assessing the amount of the compensatory award under section 123(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 the tribunal considered how long the employment relationship would have lasted if the employers had encouraged the parties to work together.

The tribunal acknowledged that without hearing evidence from the claimant's colleague it was a highly speculative matter but found that the best assessment it could make was that the claimant's employment would only have lasted a further six months. It accordingly held that the loss suffered by the claimant as a result of the employers' fault was limited to her earnings during that period.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal allowed the claimant's appeal against the amount of the award, finding that there had been insufficient evidence to entitle the tribunal to speculate as to the duration of the employment relationship and that it should not, therefore, have placed any limitation on her lost earnings.

The employers appealed.

The Court of Appeal held:

An Employment Tribunal's task, when deciding under section 123(1) of the 1996 Act what compensation was just and equitable for future loss of earnings, would almost inevitably involve a consideration of uncertainties and the presence of a need to speculate did not disqualify a tribunal from carrying out its duty under that section.

Although there might be cases in which evidence to the contrary was so sparse that a tribunal should approach the question on the basis that loss of earnings in the employment would have continued indefinitely, where there was evidence that it might not have been so, that evidence must be taken into account.

There had been evidence before the Employment Tribunal which created a risk that the employment would not have continued indefinitely and the tribunal had been right to take that evidence into account, but the reasons for the tribunal's finding that the employment would have continued for six months had not been sufficiently stated in its determination. Accordingly, the case would be remitted to the tribunal for the compensatory award to be reassessed.

The appeal was allowed.

Appearances: Dijen Basu (Eversheds LLP) for the employers; Andrew Blake (Gill Akaster, Plymouth) for the claimant.

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