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Award to Employee for Personal Injuries Suffered as a result of Bullying and Harassment overturned by the Court of Appeal

A Special Needs Assistant was awarded a record sum of €255,276 for personal injuries due to bullying and harassment by the Principal of St. Anne’s National School by the High Court. This decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal [2015 IECA287].

The Special Needs Assistant, Ms. Ruffley had worked in the school for a number of years. She claimed she was being bullied by the Principal due to the way in which a disciplinary process was carried out, and resulting in a severe disciplinary sanction. An incident had occurred when Ms. Ruffley was looking after a special needs child and was accused of locking the sensory room they were in. This was against the rules of the school and is a breach of the child protection policy. However, Ms. Ruffley provided evidence this was a common practice by some of the Special Needs Assistants in the school as some of the pupils had a tendency to run out of the room. There was then an incident where Ms. Ruffley reported a pupil could perform a certain task which was found to be incorrect. The school accused the Special Needs Assistant of “falsifying” this information. No proper investigation was conducted by the Board of Management of the school into the complaints and ultimately the Board of Management imposed a severe disciplinary sanction of a final written warning for 18 months on Ms Ruffley.

The Court of Appeal accepted that the investigation and disciplinary process was botched by the school.

The Court of Appeal applied the definition of workplace bullying in the Industrial Relations Act 1990 (Code of Practice) order 2002 SI 17/2002 to the claim:

“Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/ or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work. An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but, as a once off incident, it is not considered to be bullying”.

Using the definition of workplace bullying, the Court of Appeal found the personal injury of the Special Needs Assistant was caused by her workplace treatment but the incidents involved of a botched investigation and disciplinary process by the school did not amount to an affront to the dignity of Ms. Ruffley. This ruling gives reassurance to employers that they are entitled to pursue investigations and disciplinary processes against employees as long as this does not amount to an affront to the employees Dignity at Work and follows other Court rulings. There are other options for employees in this situation. Advice should be taken at an early stage regarding any investigation and disciplinary process involving an employee in particular if there is serious misconduct. This is to ensure that a proper investigation, disciplinary process and fair procedures are carried out. The sanction given must be reasonable and not excessive.

 

If you have any comments on the above or would like any further information please contact Davnet O’Driscoll at Davnet@amoryssolicitors.com tel 01-213 59 40