Case Law Update: Kane v Debmat Surfacing

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Opeyemi Ogundeji

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23 Jun 2021

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An employment tribunal (ET) has held that a driver who was sacked after he was spotted drinking in a club while he was off sick was unfairly dismissed.

To avoid a claim for unfair dismissal an employer must:

  • Have a potentially fair reason to dismiss,
  • Acted reasonably in treating this reason as sufficient to justify dismissal
  • Follow a fair procedure.

For a dismissal to be fair, you must show that the employee was dismissed for one of the following five permitted reasons:

  1. Capability
  2. Conduct
  3. Redundancy
  4. Statutory illegality
  5. Some other substantial reason (SOSR)

The dismissal in this case was for misconduct. All dismissals for conduct need to follow a particular route which is established by case law. the considerations must pertain to whether the organisation:

  • Acted reasonably in treating the employee’s conduct as sufficient reason for dismissal in accordance with equity and the substantial merits of the case
  • Had an honest belief in the misconduct of the claimant
  • Had reasonable grounds to sustain that belief
  • Undertook as much of an investigation into the misconduct as was reasonable in all the circumstances
  • Followed a fair disciplinary procedure

Kane v Debmat Surfacing

Facts

The claimant suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This was a condition they’d had for several years. He had worked for the respondent for almost eight years and would take periods of sickness absence due to his illness. On 9 March 2020, during a three-week period of sickness absence, the claimant was spotted smoking outside a social club by a colleague. The respondent later called the claimant after being notified of his visit to the pub.

The claimant admitted to being at the pub “for 15 minutes on one day and 30 minutes on another.” As a result, he was informed on 23 March 2020 that he was to be investigated “for dishonesty and breach of company regulations.” The respondent noted that if he had been too ill to work then he shouldn’t have been in a pub. The claimant maintained that he did not see anything wrong with what he had done as he had only been in the pub for a short period of time.

The respondent added that the claimant should have been self-isolating due to COVID-19 and his vulnerability. On 24 June 2020, the claimant was sent a letter outlining that his behaviour constituted a breach of the organisation’s disciplinary rules. No witness statement was included.

The claimant eventually shielded for 12 weeks due to coronavirus. A disciplinary hearing was held on 6 July 2020 which resulted in his dismissal. He appealed this decision, but it was rejected by the respondent.

ET

The claimant won his case. the ET found that going out for a drink while ill was not against the firm's disciplinary rules. They also found that the firm had not undertaken a fair disciplinary process.

The ET noted that the claimant was fired for a "breach of trust and dishonesty." However, there were "flaws" in the respondent’s investigations. The court went on to list ways the disciplinary procedure fell below the standard of a "reasonable employer", as follows:

  • The disciplinary meeting should not have been held by the same person who dealt with the initial complaint (the person who made the phone call to the claimant on 9 March 2020)
  • There were no written accounts of the facts which led to some confusion
  • The respondent may have been aware that other employees have demonstrated the same behaviour in the past without taking action

The ET judge went on to say: “The claimant was unfairly dismissed. There was a 25% chance of the claimant being dismissed if the respondent had conducted a fair procedure. The claimant did not contribute to his dismissal.”

Note for employers

This ET decision does not represent a binding precedent on how organisations should deal with this situation. However, the ET did rely on existing case law on determining the fairness of a dismissal (e.g. Burchell (procedure)). This informed the decision on the procedural defects of the case.

It is clear that the organisation lost this case mainly because of procedural defects. This meant that the employer did not gather sufficient information from which to make a reasonable decision. It worked on assumptions rather than fact.

The organisation had concerns that the employee was acting in a way that was inappropriate during sickness absence. From a HR standpoint, this is a genuine concern for many who pay employees in full during absences. Organisations need to have disciplinary rules which set the cornerstones for employee behaviour. Generally, organisations cannot claim that an employee has broken a rule that they did not know was in force.

What organisations need to do, regardless of the type of misconduct they are dealing with, is carry out a procedure in the way that the ET expects. If not done correctly, this can affect the outcome of the dismissal negatively. A reasonable investigate may have brought them to a different outcome—not a dismissal.

Expert support

Be prepared for the implications of this ruling. Contact Croner today. We help you make sense of the rules affecting your business and help you stay on the right side of the law.

Speak to a Croner employment law expert. Call 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Ope Ogundeji is a content coordinator and writer at Croner who specialises in employment law and HR matters. With a degree in law and growing commercial knowledge of the field, Ope regularly produces commentary and guidance for clients and advisers, as well as contributing to national publications on a weekly basis.

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