Bullying in the Workplace in Ireland-Supreme Court Raises the Bar to Successful Claims?

workplace bullying

Has the Supreme Court raised the bar to successful bullying claims with this decision delivered on 26th May, 2017?

Are you being bullied at work? A lot of people complain to me about bullying.

You would not believe the large number of queries I received from people about bullying, and allegations of being bullied in work.

Many of them are, quite frankly, misguided and do a disservice to genuine victims of bullying in the workplace.

I have written quite a few posts about bullying in the workplace, such as

  1. Workplace bullying and non-physical injuries-what you need to prove
  2. The High Court Ruffley case (Una Ruffley v Board of Management of St. Anne’s School).

I also wrote about the Court of Appeal overturning the High Court decision in the Ruffley case.

This case has recently been dealt with by the Supreme Court in May, 2017, and as the Supreme Court is the highest ranking Court in Ireland what it has held in the Ruffley case is well worth taking a look at.

The Court itself has held that “this novel case will set a benchmark for all bullying claims.”

So, if you feel you are being bullied and are considering a claim on the grounds of bullying in the workplace you need to consider carefully what the Supreme Court has to say.

The background to the case is that Una Ruffley was a special needs assistant in a primary school in Kildare, St. Annes. In January, 2010 she was disciplined by her employer, the Board of Management of the School.

Una Ruffley claimed that this disciplinary procedure was part of a bullying campaign against her, and had suffered a personal injury of a psychological nature as a result.

Ms Ruffley commenced a personal injury claim in the High Court and was awarded over €255,000 euros in 2014.

Judge O’Neill in that case held that she had been bullied as she was subjected to repeated inappropriate behaviour which affected her dignity at work, and Judge O’Neill accepted the definition of bullying as set out in para 5 of the Industrial Relations Act 1990 (Code of Practice detailing Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace) (Declaration) Order 2002 (S.I. No. 17/2002) as follows:

“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, is not considered to be bullying.”

Appeal

This decision was appealed to the Court of Appeal and Judge O’Neill’s finding in her favour was overturned by 2 to 1. The reasons for this was the finding that in this particular case the Board of Management had not been guilty of the type of repetitive inappropriate conduct which undermined the right to dignity in the workplace for a period of over one year as was found by the trial judge.

One of the Judges stated that the absence of fair procedures on its own could constitute bullying; another Judge held that the behaviour had to be repeated and reasonably proximate in time.

These are obviously two completely different, contradictory opinions. For this reason, the appeal to the Supreme Court was watched closely by legal professionals because it was hoped that the Supreme Court would clarify the actual test of what constituted repeated, inappropriate behaviour-that is, bullying-from a practical perspective.

Appeal to Supreme Court

The Court agreed that the test for bullying, as set out in Quigley v Complex Tool and Moulding Limited [2008] IESC 44, was still the correct test. This means the conduct complained of must be

  • Repeated
  • Inappropriate
  • Undermining of the dignity of the employee at work.

The Court on this occasion held that each part of this test must be fulfilled on each occasion of behaviour which is argued constitutes a pattern of bullying, and found against Ms Ruffley and held that this case was not one that should have attracted damages.

The Court also distinguishes ordinary management from bullying, and holds that there is a certain degree of robustness expected from employees.

It is clear from this case that the bar over which an employee must jump to prove bullying has been raised.

The Court held:

Correction and instruction are necessary in the functioning of any workplace and these are required to avoid accidents and to ensure that productive work is engaged in. It may be necessary to point to faults. It may be necessary to bring home a point by requesting engagement in an unusual task or longer or unsocial hours. It is a kindness to attempt to instil a work ethic or to save a job or a career by an early intervention. Bullying is not about being tough on employees. Appropriate interventions may not be pleasant and must simply be taken in the right spirit. Sometimes a disciplinary intervention may be necessary.”

It also clarifies that the conduct required to prove the undermining of the employee’s dignity at work must be outrageous, unacceptable, and exceeding all bounds tolerated by decent society.

Justice Charleton, in his decision, states that “the test for bullying is of necessity to be set very high”.

It appears from the Supreme Court decision in this case that it has succeeded in setting the bar high.

You can read the full decision ( Ruffley -v- The Board of Management of Saint Anne’s School, [2017] IESC 33) of the Supreme Court here-it is well worth a read.

Interestingly, Mr. Justice Peter Charleton states that

“Not every wrong, even one which results from unfair or unfortunate circumstances, gives rise to a cause of action.Given that the test for bullying is of necessity to be set very high, these are not circumstances which can attract damages.”

How to Deal With Bullying in the Workplace

workplace bullying

Have you experienced the stomach churning feeling associated with bullying?

Are you an employer concerned with how to deal with bullying in the workplace?

I recently gave a talk to an anti bullying group in Mullingar, the Midlands Anti Bullying Network.

Below are the slides from that talk.

Dignity at Work Policies in Ireland-Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Bullying

bullying-at-work

Are you being bullied at work?

Or harassed?

Bullying and harassment are the acts of cowards.

But can be appallingly damaging if you are a victim. And if you are an employer in whose workplace this is allowed to happen.

Bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment claims by employees against employers can be incredibly costly affairs.

And if you are an employee and are suffering from being bullied or harassed it can be equally costly for you in terms of your health.

If you are being bullied at work there is a wide range of legal remedies open to you and you don’t have to suffer in silence.

Let’s take a look at the background to bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace in Ireland..

While there is no express statutory legal obligation on employers to have policies covering bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment it is strongly advisable.

Because the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and the Employment Equality Acts, together with the common law, create indirect obligations which amount to pretty much the same thing.

In fact, there are three statutory codes of practice covering this area. These include

  1. the Health and Safety Authority’s code on bullying, “Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work
  2. the Equality Authority’s “Code of Practice on Sexual Harassment and Harassment at Work” and
  3. the “Code of Practice Detailing Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace” (“the Industrial Relation Act Code-statutory instrument 17/2012).

The obligations and responsibilities imposed by these codes of practice along with the employers’ common law duties of care and so forth really make it imperative for employers to have policies in place.

Employers who do not have a workplace policy in place dealing with these issues will have a hard time defending claims made against him as it will be difficult to show that he has discharged his statutory obligations.

Remember that an employer can potentially face civil and criminal proceedings for failure to provide a place of work that is free from bullying.

The presence (or absence) of workplace policies is admissible in evidence in any civil or criminal proceedings when such a dispute comes before a Court or tribunal such as the Labour Court, Employment Appeals Tribunal or Rights Commissioner.

Note: from 1st October, 2015 all these claims must be brought to the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission) or to civil court.

Personal injuries cases taken against employers will also be significantly influenced by the presence of policies as will legal proceedings seeking to attribute liability to the employer for the illness of an employee.

Learn more about bullying as a health and safety issue in the workplace here.

Dignity at Work Policy

One of the most efficient ways for employers to attend to the obligations imposed by the three statutory codes of practice above is to have (and implement) a dignity at work policy which would address bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment.

It is important to note that this dignity at work policy needs to be adapted to the particular circumstances of the workplace. For example if there is a safety representative or committee in place he/they will have to be consulted.

It must also be effectively communicated to employees and implemented in the workplace with regular reviews to take cognisance of any changes in legislation or codes of practice. And it must be brought to the attention of those in the workplace who have responsibility for implementing it and appropriate training should be provided.

(You may also be interested in reading Codes of Practice from the Labour Relations Commission.)

Having appropriate procedures and policies in place in your work place can minimize disputes and time wasting for both employees and employers.

They can also protect your business from costly disputes and claims and ensure that you are in compliance with the law as an employer.

We provide workplace policies and procedures for employers in the following areas:

  • sick leave/sick pay
  • leave
  • timekeeping and attendance
  • internet and email use in the workplace
  • grievances
  • disciplinary issues
  • mobile phone
  • bullying and harassment
  • breaks
  • confidentiality
  • data protection
  • use of company vehicles
  • and more.

Stress, Harassment, and Bullying at Work-The Legal Remedies

If you are being bullied at work, or are a victim of workplace stress or harassment, there are a number of legal remedies open to you.

The broad categories of causes of action you can pursue would be

  • breach of contract
  • a personal injuries claim for negligence of the employer;  your employer owes you a duty of care which is not discharged properly if you suffer one of these non physical injuries at work
  • health and safety law and the employer’s duty to provide you with a safe workplace
  • unfair dismissals (constructive dismissal)
  • equality law in respect of harassment.

Breach of contract

Your contract of employment will contain either an express or implied term that the employer will maintain your trust and confidence, that he will take reasonable care for the health and safety of his employees, that he will provide a safe system of work, that he will ensure reasonable codes of conduct in the workplace, that employees will be free in the workplace to work free from bullying and harassment.

However a claim for a personal injury arising from stress, bullying or harassment fit more naturally into the domain of tort law (civil wrong). For that reason it is more likely to be pursued as a personal injury claim.

Personal injury claim

There appears to be a trend in taking non physical injury claims as personal injury claims. However, the Injuries Board will not deal with it if it is a psychiatric/psychological injury and will simple issue an authorisation to pursue the claim through the Courts. It will invariably end up on the High Court.

The employer has a general duty of care towards his employees  under the law of torts (civil wrongs). (Learn more about negligence and torts here).

There may be a case for distinguishing between stress caused in the workplace and perhaps arising from personal circumstances. So, if there are multiple causes of stress damages may be apportioned.

Constructive dismissal

The employee can also bring a case for constructive dismissal/loss of earnings if he/she leaves the employment because of the bullying, stress or harassment; however this should be one of the last options to exercise as the burden of proof in constructive dismissal cases fall on the employee.

In Riehn v Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [2004] 15 ELR the employee resigned due to stress caused by an excessive workload and was awarded €30,000 in loss of earnings.

The venues that you would pursue the various remedies range from the Rights Commissioner service to the Employment Appeals Tribunal to the Labour Court to the Health and Safety Authority to the Civil Courts.

Criminal prosecution

The Health Safety and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 provides for the criminal prosecution of offences.

Section 78 of the Health Safety and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 provides the penalties:

(i) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €3,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or both, or
(ii) on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €3,000,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or both.

Section 80 of the act provides for personal liability for directors and officers of the company.

Disability claim

One of these non physical injuries could be classified as a disability under the Employment Equality Acts. If that is the case a claim to the Equality Tribunal may also be possible.

Terry Gorry & Co. Solicitors provides all the necessary policies for responsible employers.

We also represent employees who suffer personal injuries as a result of workplace stress,  harassment and/or bullying. Learn more about sexual harassment here.