Latest News

18 09 2009

Employers have to repay sick pay

Some good news for employees came out last week with the decision by the European Court of Justice in Pereda v Madrid Movilidad SA that says if an employee is sick whilst on holiday, they can retake the holiday later on or carry the days lost over to the next year. 

Not surprisingly employers’ representatives are unhappy about it as it places additional burdens on them.  It also increases the risk of unscrupulous employees taking advantage. No guidance is offered by the ECJ on how this could be policed.  Employers can only insist on a sick note from GPs after seven days absence. 

Costs Awards in Tribunal

A while ago I wrote about the case of Daleside Nursing Home v Mathew    which dealt with the issue of when costs should be awarded against a party by an Employment Tribunal.  A recent case has now followed that decision.  In Dunedin Canmore Housing Association Limited v Donaldson, a case before the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in Edinburgh it was held that the Claimant (who was representing herself) had lied under oath and the Tribunal should have awarded costs against her.  In particular the Honourable Lady Smith said;

The issue was not whether a lay person could reasonably have been expected to understand the law.  It was whether she had or had not, in simple human terms, approached the essential factual matters that lay at the heart of her case honestly and reasonably.  She had not done so and these are exactly the sort of circumstances where a Tribunal has a responsibility to make clear that it is quite unacceptable to cause expense to another party by bringing proceedings on that basis.

Be warned!

 

Notice Monies and Constructive Dismissal

Here is some good news for employers.  The Court of Appeal (CA) has recently overturned the EAT’s decision in Stuart Peters v Bell  which had said that an employee who claimed constructive dismissal from his employer and then went on to work for another  employer during the notice period they would otherwise have served did not  have to give credit for the monies earned.  This has been the law, since 1972 case of Norton Tools v Tewson.  Effectively the employee could get his salary twice for that period, which was something of a windfall for him.  That has now been overturned by the CA, but only insofar as constructive dismissal cases are concerned. So, if an employee claims constructive dismissal, leaves the employer without serving their notice and finds alternative work elsewhere, the employer won’t have to pay the notice monies due to the employee during that period.

 Norton Tools is still good law in other respects and hasn’t been completely overturned.

Please contact me on 0207 464 8433 or email me at michaelscutt@dalelangley.co.uk if  you require further advice.

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Constructive Dismissal – recent developments

24 07 2009

This post isn’t about Freddie Flintoff bowling 5-92 to defeat the Aussies at Lords (a very constructive dismissal in my view) but, sadly, is about some recent cases on the law relating to constructive dismissal.  The recent case of Bournemouth University Higher Education Corporation v Buckland [2009] EAT whilst not being as newsworthy as this week’s actions at Lords is, nevertheless, important stuff on the difficult topic of constructive dismissal.  In my experience few topics cause as much confusion or are as overused as constructive dismissal.  Every second client thinks they have or are about to suffer it.

So, what is it about? The definition provided by the Employment Rights Act 1996 s.95(1)(c) is that constructive dismissal occurs when an employee “resigns in circumstances such that he is entitled to terminate his [contract of employment] without notice by reason of the employer’s conduct”. In other words the employer commits an act (or even fails to do something that he said he would) and the employee’s response is to resign in protest. The breach doesn’t have to be of an express term of the policy (like a failure to pay salary, for instance): implied terms can be breached and the usual one that gets raised with constructive dismissal is that the employer has breached the implied term of trust and confidence.

The employer must be said to have committed a repudiatory (i.e. fundamental) breach of contract – it must be more than just unreasonable behaviour by the employer: it just go to the heart of the employment contract.  This is called a WRONGFUL dismissal (which is NOT the same as an UNFAIR dismissal).  If the employee then resigns in response to this breach he is said to have ACCEPTED the repudiatory breach.  The contract is then discharged and the employee is free of all obligations under that contract.  On the other hand, if the employee doesn’t accept the breach or resigns over some unrelated issue he may be said to have AFFIRMED the breach.

For an employee claiming constructive dismissal is a big step.  The burden of proof is on the employee to (1) show that the employer was in breach, (2) that it was a fundamental breach, and (3) that he (the employee) resigned in response and (4) the employee mustn’t delay in acting.  Effectively the employee resigns and walks out without his notice monies or any other compensation because the employer won’t pay notice monies to an employee who walks out.   I often call it, perhaps rather melodramatically, the “nuclear option”. 

A constructive dismissal is not always an unfair dismissal. It will be if the employer cannot show a potentially fair reason for the dismissal. The ERA lays down five potentially fair reasons – (1) redundancy, (2) capability, (3) conduct, (4) frustration of contract and (5) some other substantial reason.  The employer needs to show that the action he took or threatened comes within one of these five categories. If he can’t then the dismissal is unfair.  If he can show that the reason for dismissal was within one of these categories then he must then prove that he (the employer) acted reasonably in relying upon that reason for the dismissal.

How is that established? The case of Buckland (above) dealt with this issue.  In most unfair dismissal cases before an Employment Tribunal the ET will be asked to consider whether employer’s actions were within the “band of reasonable responses” test – which is not where the ET decides what decision it would have taken if it had had to make that decision but whether the action the employer took was a reasonable response to the employee’s situation.  Buckland confirms that the band of reasonable responses test is NOT relevant in cases of constructive dismissal.  This has been an issue for some time in this area.  What is the relevance to employees?  This decision confirms that “mere” unreasonable conduct by the employer is not sufficient to establish constructive dismissal: there must be a breach of contract that goes right to the root of the employment contract and shows that the employer no longer wished to be bound by its terms.  This raises the bar for Claimants in an already difficult area.

The second recent case that grabbed my attention is Wishaw and District Housing Association v Moncrieff EAT.  It illustrates another aspect of the constructive dismissal situation: what if you don’t have one particular act or event constituting the repudiatory breach, but a series of events leading up to a “final straw”?  This case dealt with that issue and confirmed that the final incident has to be more than trivial.  The cumulative effect of all the breaches has to amount to a fundamental breach of contract. 

I would urge any employee contemplating claiming constructive dismissal to get legal advice as a matter of urgency before taking (of failing to take) any action.  Don’t rely on this post either!  Constructive dismissal is a complex subject and you need to look carefully at each case on its own merits before deciding what to do.





BA is in the news again …

24 06 2009

BA has been in the news … again and, as usual, for all the wrong reasons. The company formerly claiming to be the world’s favourite airline has now asked 40,000 of its staff to not just take a pay cut but to work for nothing for a month to ensure the company’s survival.  Now there’s an enticing offer … not.

The offer to staff involves them either working without pay for up to one month, or taking unpaid leave for that time.  The deduction would then be taken out of their salary over a period of three to six months.  Willie Walsh, BA’s Chief Executive, has agreed to take zero pay for July but as his monthly salary is reportedly £61,000  he will have enough saved up not to need to worry about how to pay the milkman. I did hear on the radio (although I haven’t found it again in print anywhere) that some of the affected pilots were being offered equity in the company to make up for the shortfall, which could be a good bet, but why isn’t it being offered to all staff? 

Enough of this: what should an employee do when faced with this dilemma? Very few employees love their jobs enough to want to work for nothing.  On the other hand if accepting a temporary moratorium on pay would prevent redundancy then the issue gets more complicated. Even if true, will the salary sacrifice make much difference? Many of those affected will already be hard pressed paying their mortgages and credit card bills. Will building societies and credit card companies also agree to a reduction in payments to them? My guess is no. If I were an employee of BA my first thought would be to assess whether I believed Willie Walsh when he said that the company’s future was at stake.  On balance, BA should probably be applauded for trying to find a solution other than just slashing headcount.

The legal issue is really the same as I discussed in my earlier posts on pay cuts vs. redundancy.  An employer faces some tricky legal issues when proposing a pay reduction or, as here a complete pay cut. An employee, if not persuaded by management’s declarations of poverty, could claim constructive dismissal if the pay cut is implemented without their agreement.  Under contract law, any unilateral variation of the terms of a contract is a breach of contract.  When, as here, the term in question is fundamental to the very essence of the contract, a breach can be said to be “repudiatory”, meaning the employee can treat him/herself as being released from all obligations under the contract if he/she chooses to do so.   

An employer would be well advised to consult with employees if it wants to impose a pay cut or pay moratorium.  If more than 20 employees are involved then at least one month should be allowed for the consultation process, or three months if more than 90.  The reason for this is that if any employees don’t want to accept the proposed reduction, they could claim not only constructive unfair dismissal but also a “Protective Award” of one or three month’s pay depending on the number of employees involved. It follows from this that there is little or no difference, from an employer’s point of view, in conducting a redundancy consultation process or a pay cut consultation process. An employer that consults over a proposed pay cut will probably be able to demonstrate (to an Employment Tribunal) that it has tried to take all steps to avoid redundancies if that later becomes necessary.

The employer needs to move cautiously and carefully if it is to avoid claims by disaffected employees.  If any “sweeteners” can be given to staff (such as equity, or additional holiday) that is more likely to succeed.  If an employee refuses the pay cut/moratorium the employer could potentially dismiss that employee and state the reason for the dismissal as being “some other substantial reason”, which is one of the potentially fair reasons for terminating an employee’s employment under the Employment Rights Act, but a claim for unfair dismissal will probably follow if that employee has more than 12 months continuous employment experience.

Advice to both employers and employees: take legal advice before going down this route.  If anyone out there reading this works for BA please do get in touch and let me know your views and decision.





More on Redundancy v Pay Cuts

17 04 2009

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I posted on this subject a while ago and it has received such a lot of visits I thought I better give my public more of what they want. It also gives me an opportunity to provide an update on the poll I set up below on this issue. At the moment 57% of respondents would elect a pay cut and 31% would take redundancy.  The remaining 11% didn’t know.   Whether those results will change after this post wil be interesting to see.

In my previous post on the 27th February I wrote that the risk to an employer in reducing or attempting to reduce salary was that it might constitute a breach of contract and could lead to litigation if the employee didn’t agree  to the cut.  A claim for breach of contract and/or unlawful deduction from wages  and/or constructive unfair dismissal could be the result.  Only employees with more than one year’s service can claim unfair dismissal, but any employee can claim for breach of contract or for unlawful deduction of wages, which is what an unagreed reduction in pay would be.  The crucial issue, therefore,  is to get the agreement of the employees concerned and, if this is obtained, many of the problems fall away. How does an employer go about this?

By consultation is the answer. An employer needs to approach the matter with sensitivity and it needs to set out to the employees concerned the reason for the proposal and to show that it has considered other options to a pay cut.  Employees need to be given time to consider the proposals  (within a defined timetable) and to put forward any suggestions they have, which should then be given due consideration. In all probability, other options to a  pay cut will include redundancy and the employer will need to set out the business and financial reasons for suggesting the pay cut.  Other options though might include laying off employees, reducing hours and reducing benefits.  A pay cut is likely to be more palatable for employees if it is stated to be a temporary reduction, e.g.  for six months pending further review by employer and employee.

In all these circumstances the employer will be aided hugely if the employment contracts it provides to its staff contain a clause that allows the employer to make amendments to the terms of the contract (most don’t it has to be said).  In the absence of such  a clause an employee who is not minded to accept the reduction in pay, or alteration to their hours, will be strengthened in any claim for breach of contract.  That risk does not disappear even if there is such a clause because the employer must act reasonably when seeking to amend the contract, but it does give the employer scope for manoeuvre.  In other words, if the employer consults properly and frankly with affected employees  and can demonstrate the necessity for making  pay cuts, it should reduce the risk of being successfully sued for breach of contract by a disgruntled employee.  

An employer may be required to consult collectively with any recognised unions at the workplace or to get employees to elect representatives to consult on their behalf.   I covered this point in my previous post.

Assuming that agreement is reached with employees, the employer should then  get the affected employees to sign a letter confirming their agreement to the reduction in pay.  The letter should set out the company’s reasons for imposing the pay cut (ie to avoid redundancy), refer to the meeting(s) with the employee during the consultation process and ask them to sign and return a copy to signify their acceptance.   This isn’t guaranteed to prevent claims against the employer but it should help to minimise the risk of successful claims being made.  In the current economic climate, the majority of employees will probably accept a pay cut rather than take the risk of being out of work altogether.  

By the way, I mentioned “lay-offs”  above.  If an employer wants to “lay off” staff it should proceed with care  and take legal advice before doing anything; there are many pitfalls and can lead to claims for breach of contract and constructive dismissal. A lay off is where an employee is, effectively, suspended from work without pay. I will write about lay-offs in a future post.