6 Month Time Limits in Employment Cases-How Do You Show ‘Reasonable Cause’ to Obtain an Extension of Time?

If you want to bring a claim for unfair dismissal or non-payment of wages or payment of annual leave or any other breach of your employment rights you must bring your claim within 6 months of the contravention.

But the WRC and the Labour Court have discretion to extend this time to 12 months if ‘reasonable cause’ is shown.

Most of the employment law acts such as the Unfair Dismissals act 1977 or the Organisation of Working Time act 1997 acts will state something like the following,

(4) A rights commissioner shall not entertain a complaint under this paragraph if it is presented to him or her after the expiration of the period of 6 months beginning on the date of the contravention to which the complaint relates.

(5) Notwithstanding subparagraph (4), a rights commissioner may entertain a complaint under this paragraph presented to him or her after the expiration of the period referred to in subparagraph (4) (but not later than 12 months after such expiration) if he or she is satisfied that the failure to present the complaint within that period was due to reasonable cause.

Section 41 (8) of Workplace Relations Act 2015 states:

(8) An adjudication officer may entertain a complaint or dispute to which this section applies presented or referred to the Director General after the expiration of the period referred to in subsection (6) or (7) (but not later than 6 months after such expiration), as the case may be, if he or she is satisfied that the failure to present the complaint or refer the dispute within that period was due to reasonable cause.

Reasonable Cause

What is ‘reasonable cause’? Let’s have a look, shall we.

This issue has been decided upon regularly by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), the Labour Court, and the Civil Courts.

In this 2016 decision of the Adjudicator in the WRC the issue is teased out as follows:

As submitted by the complainant, the test to extend time to permit a claim of unfair dismissal submitted later than six months but within one year has been reduced from “exceptional circumstances” to “reasonable cause”. In Cementation Skanska (formerly Kvaerner Cementation) v Carroll DWT0425, the Labour Court considered “reasonable cause” in the following terms:

            “It is the Court’s view that in considering if reasonable cause exists, it is for the claimant to show that there are reasons which both explain the delay and afford an excuse for the delay. The explanation must be reasonable, that is to say it must make sense, be agreeable to reason and not be irrational or absurd. In the context in which the expression reasonable cause appears in the statute it suggests an objective standard, but it must be applied to the facts and circumstances known to the claimant at the material time. The claimant’s failure to present the claim within the six-month time limit must have been due to the reasonable cause relied upon. Hence there must be a causal link between the     circumstances cited and the delay and the claimant should satisfy the Court, as a matter of probability, that had those circumstances not been present he would    have initiated the claim in time.

            The length of the delay should be taken into account. A short delay may require only a slight explanation whereas a long delay may require more cogent reasons. Where reasonable cause is shown the Court must still consider if it is appropriate in the circumstances to exercise its discretion in favour of granting an extension of time. Here the Court should consider if the respondent has suffered prejudice by the delay and should also consider if the claimant has a good arguable case.”

Subsequently, the Labour Court in Salesforce.com v Leech EDA1615 held as follows:

            “It is clear from the authorities that the test places the onus on the applicant for an extension of time to identify the reason for the delay and to establish that the reason relied upon provides a justifiable excuse for the actual delay. Secondly, the onus is on the applicant to establish a causal connection between the reason proffered for the delay and his or her failure to present the complaint in time.   Thirdly, the Court must be satisfied, as a matter of probability, that the complaint would have been presented the complaint in time were it not for the intervention of the factors relied upon as constituting reasonable cause. It is the actual delay that must be explained and justified. Hence, if the factors relied upon to explain the   delay ceased to operate before the complaint was presented, that may undermine a    claim that those factors were the actual cause of the delay. Finally, while the established test imposes a relatively low threshold of reasonableness on an   applicant, there is some limitation on the range of issues which can be taken into account. In particular, as was pointed out by Costello J in O’Donnell v Dun Laoghaire Corporation [1991] ILRM 30, a Court should not extend a statutory time limit merely because the applicant subjectively believed that he or she was justified in delaying the institution of proceedings.”

The circumstances explained by counsel for the complainant are, of course, very unfortunate. The solicitors instructed by the complainant played an active role in and around the time of the complainant’s dismissal, where they engaged with the respondent on her behalf. It is through inadvertence that the claim was not submitted within six months of the complainant’s dismissal. It is fair to say that this is the nightmare scenario for any person, including professional lawyers, engaged in advocacy on another’s behalf. The issue to be determined here is whether it can amount to reasonable cause to allow a late claim to proceed.

Having considered the Labour Court authorities, I am obliged to find that the claim of unfair dismissal cannot proceed.

In a Labour Court decision in November 2017, PDD 171, the Labour Court looked at the question of reasonable cause and delay in bringing a claim as follows:

The Complainant has renewed his application to extend time as part of his appeal to this Court. The matter, therefore, falls to be considered afresh in the context of a de novo hearing.

Section 41(8) of the 2015 Act provides, in effect, that the time for presenting a claim under the Act may be extended for reasonable cause shown for a period up to but not exceeding 12 months from the date of the occurrence of the event giving rise to the claim. The established test for deciding if an extension should be granted for reasonable cause shown is that formulated by this Court in Labour Court Determination DWT0338, Cementation Skanska (Formerly Kvaerner Cementation) v Carroll. Here the test was set out in the following terms: –

“It is the Court’s view that in considering if reasonable cause exists, it is for the claimant to show that there are reasons which both explain the delay and afford an excuse for the delay. The explanation must be reasonable, that is to say it must make sense, be agreeable to reason and not be irrational or absurd. In the context in which the expression reasonable cause appears in the statute it suggests an objective standard, but it must be applied to the facts and circumstances known to the claimant at the material time. The claimant’s failure to present the claim within the six-month time limit must have been due to the reasonable cause relied upon. Hence there must be a causal link between the circumstances cited and the delay and the claimant should satisfy the Court, as a matter of probability, that had those circumstances not been present he would have initiated the claim in time.”

In that case, and in subsequent cases in which this question arose, the Court adopted an approach analogous to that taken by the Superior Courts in considering whether time should enlarged for ‘good reason’ in judicial review proceedings pursuant to Order 84, Rule 21 of the Rules of the Superior Courts 1986. That approach was held to be correct by the High Court in Minister for Finance v CPSU & Ors [2007] 18 ELR 36.

The test formulated in Cementation Skanska (Formerly Kvaerner Cementation) v Carroll draws heavily on the decision of the High Court in Donal O’Donnell and Catherine O’Donnell v Dun Laoghaire Corporation [1991] ILRM 30. Here Costello J. (as he then was) stated as follows:

“The phrase ‘good reasons’ is one of wide import which it would be futile to attempt to define precisely. However, in considering whether or not there are good reasons for extending the time I think it is clear that the test must be an objective one and the court should not extend the time merely because an aggrieved plaintiff believed that he or she was justified in delaying the institution of proceedings. What the plaintiff has to show (and I think the onus under O. 84 r. 21 is on the plaintiff) is that there are reasons which both explain the delay and afford a justifiable excuse for the delay.”

It clear from the authorities that the test places the onus on the applicant for an extension of time to identify the reason for the delay and to establish that the reason relied upon provides a justifiable excuse for the actual delay. Secondly, the onus is on the applicant to establish a causal connection between the reason proffered for the delay and his or her failure to present the complaint in time. Thirdly, the Court must be satisfied, as a matter of probability, that the Complainant would have been presented the complaint in time were it not for the intervention of the factors relied upon as constituting reasonable cause. It is the actual delay that must be explained and justified. Hence, if the factors relied upon to explain the delay ceased to operate before the complaint was presented, that may undermine a claim that those factors were the actual cause of the delay. Finally, while the established test imposes a relatively low threshold of reasonableness on an applicant, there is some limitation on the range of issues which can be taken into account. In particular, as was pointed out by Costello J in the passage quoted above, a Court should not extend a statutory time limit merely because the applicant subjectively believed that he or she was justified in delaying the institution of proceedings.

Takeaway

When you review these decisions carefully it appears to be the case that good reasons for reasonable cause cannot be defined precisely but the circumstances should be looked at objectively, not subjectively.

What you need to show is that there are reasons for the delay which

  1. Explain the delay and
  2. Afford a justifiable excuse for the delay.

The established test for delay in these cases is set out in DWT0338 CEMENTATION SKANSKA (FORMERLY KVAERNER CEMENTATION) LIMITED and TOM CARROLL.

How to Make a Decision to Bring an Employment Claim to WRC or Not

Are you torn between bringing a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) or walking away from the issue?

I meet employees on a weekly basis who face this decision. On the one hand they feel they have been treated unfairly, and perhaps unlawfully, in the workplace. But they face the tough decision to submit a claim to the WRC or even commence legal proceedings in the civil courts or walking away, forgetting about it, and putting the difficulty behind them.

It is not an easy decision.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors you will need to consider.

Justice

Many employees speak about getting justice and wanting to do something about what they see as the essential unfairness of how they have been treated by the employer. This appears to be a noble, principled position to adopt.

But if it involves a claim which will inevitably involve time, stress, and legal costs and the potential financial payback does not exceed the costs incurred it may be prudent to have a second think about bringing the claim.

Let me give you a simple example.

Let’s assume you have been dismissed from your job and you believe you have a strong case for unfair dismissal and you are anxious to pursue it.

Let’s assume, too, that you have been successful in getting a new job quickly after the termination of the old one and you have only been out of work for 3 weeks.

The Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 provides that if you succeed in your claim to the WRC the compensation you can be awarded is “financial loss”. Financial loss is essentially loss of pay or remuneration as a result of your sacking.

But your financial loss, assuming you start the new job 3 weeks later, is only 3 weeks’ wages.

Now, let’s assume you were taking home €500 per week, then your loss is €1,500. In these circumstances, if you are successful the WRC adjudicator can award you a maximum of 1 month’s salary which is approximately €2,000.

So, you might win €2,000 if you succeed but you will have to pay your own legal costs and it is extremely unlikely that your legal costs will not comfortably exceed €2,000. And then you must consider the stress of putting yourself through the whole process and the possibility that you will lose, in which case you are now out of pocket and your sense of unfairness and injustice has just increased significantly.

Now consider you do win but the employer has deep pockets and appeals the WRC decision to the Labour Court. You will have more legal costs and there is the possibility of your win at the WRC being overturned and you being further out of pocket.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to put you off, you may be perfectly happy to pursue your claim on a point of principle and let the cards fall where they may. There may well be an aspect of clearing or vindicating your good name and that is worth fighting for.

But you do need to think through the process from start to finish and weigh up the pros and cons and look at the potential outcomes.

For example, your case would be a completely different one if you were out of work for 6 months and had tried your best to get a new job. In this situation your financial loss will be 6 months’ wages so the financial analysis of your potential claim is radically different. To put it bluntly, it may well be worth a punt.

Justice v financial reality

You may have to weigh the justice or principle of your case against the financial reality and decide whether to pursue the matter or not. This can only be done by a cold headed analysis of the potential claims you have, the possible outcomes and remedies, and the probability of each outcome.

Conclusion

Bringing a claim to the WRC, Labour Court, or civil courts is an easy thing to do. But before you decided to do so you should consider the overall situation, what the potential outcomes might be, and the various steps along the way to the final conclusion, not just the first, easy step of submitting a claim.

You need to weigh it up like the moves in a chess game. Thinking only 1 move ahead is bound to end in disaster.

To assist with your decision, and to ensure you know what factors to consider, it’s a smart idea to get professional advice.

Court of Appeal Confirms Employees Have Obligations for Their Own Safety in the Workplace

Many employers believe that if an accident happens to an employee in the workplace the employer will inevitably be found liable and have to pay compensation.

This is not always the case, however.

Two recent decisions of the Court of Appeal give some comfort to employers when it comes to employers liability and health and safety obligations in the workplace.

Court of Appeal Decisions

The first case to look at is Greene v Dunnes Stores.

In this case a checkout operator in Dunnes Stores slipped on a wrapper in her store and injured her arm, shoulder and elbow. Dunnes Stores defended the claim which ended up in the Court of Appeal and Dunnes gave evidence of a security operative walking through the area 5 minutes before the accident and he had not seen any wrapper on the floor.

Dunnes gave evidence that this security person regularly walked through the area and checked the area from the perspective of security and hygiene.

The Court of Appeal held that this was a reasonable approach by the employer and a key defence for an employer is ‘did he act as a reasonable employer?’

The Court of Appeal also noted that the employee had received training and allowed the employer’s appeal from the High Court decision.

Read the full decision here: Greene v Dunnes Stores [2019] IECA 115.

The other case is Kevin Keegan (Amended by the Order of the Court to Kevin Duke) v Dunnes Stores. In this case the Plaintiff suffered an injury when he stepped off a pallet and became entangled in shrink wrapping.

It was accepted that the plaintiff had received training for health and safety in the workplace and had even received refresher training after his original training.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the legal obligation on the employer to provide a safe place and system of work as far as is practicable but also recognised that the employee also has an obligation in respect of his own safety.

The Court of Appeal held ‘the proximate cause of the accident was the failure of the respondent to keep a proper look out and adhere to the instructions he had received in training’ and allowed Dunnes Stores appeal finding that the employee was responsible for the accident and his injury as the shrink wrap would have been obvious to him if he had looked.

Conclusion-not strict liability for employers

No matter how much the employer feels the deck is stacked against him in these types of cases it is clear that the Courts will still require the plaintiff to prove the defendant was negligent and it is not a case of strict liability for the employer.

It is clear,however, that the fact that the employer provided health and safety training for its employees was a big factor in avoiding liability in both of these cases.

European Court of Justice Decision-All Working Hours Must Be Recorded and Unpaid Overtime Ended?

Are you working excessive overtime and not getting paid? The European Court of Justice issued an interesting decision this week (14th May 2019) when it ruled that companies in the EU must set up a system to record the hours of work of their employees. All EU member states must act on foot of this decision which has direct effect in member states. (Press release of the Court of Justice of the European Union).

The Court found that member states must “must require employers to set up an objective, reliable and accessible system enabling the duration of time worked each day by each worker to be measured.”

In this case a Spanish trade union had brought a case against a local branch of Germany’s Deutsche Bank and a ruling was needed as to whether a system had to be established to record working hours.

Member states must implement the working time directive and it is impossible to do so fairly if employees’ working hours are not recorded. The Spanish court found that 53.7 % of overtime hours of Spanish workers were not recorded.

Impact in Ireland?

Will this have any practical effect in Ireland, however, given that Irish employers already have an obligation to record working time of employees pursuant to the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 and the various organisation of working time regulations.

Has Ireland failed to properly implement the working time directive if all workers hours are not being recorded, including unpaid overtime and those workers who are paid a salary?

It is suspected that many Irish employers do not accurately record the working hours of their employees and this decision should increase the pressure on them to do so.

It is expected that the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) will carefully consider this decision and see is there a need to increase workplace inspections to check on working time records being kept.

On the one hand it is argued that Ireland already has legislation since 1997-the Organisation of working time act 1997-to ensure employees’ hours of work are recorded; others argue that there is not enough inspections carried out by the WRC and there is a culture o f non-compliance with the existing legislation in Ireland.

Time will tell whether this European Court of Justice decision will have any practical effect in the Irish workplace or not.

Read the full decision of the European Court of Justice here.

Workplace Investigation and Disciplinary-the Danger of an Overemphasis on Looking for Imperfections in the Procedure

workplace disciplinary procedure

Dmitri was suspended from work for allegedly assaulting a colleague. Susan was suspended on pay while an investigation was being carried out into approximately half a dozen allegations of misconduct.

When they came to me for advice they were very much focused on the procedure adopted by the employer to date. Too focused, in my view.

Let me explain. They had done a bit of research online about disciplinary procedures in the workplace, the entitlement of the employee to fair procedures and natural justice, the importance of any investigation and disciplinary procedure being carried out fairly, and so on.

That’s fair enough.

But it is an easy mistake to get preoccupied with employment rights. These rights may stem from the constitution or statute or the contract of employment.

But remember the employer, too, has rights. And the right to investigate alleged wrongdoing in the workplace is one of them.

Now, Dmitri and Susan in their initial discussion with me were focused on seeking any imperfection or infirmity in how the employer had acted up to that point. I believe that was a mistake and they might have been better advised to address the substantive allegations against them.

But you must not ignore the substantive allegation against you and you must spend as much time addressing this as seeking imperfections in the procedure adopted by the employer.

Because they were so focused on finding imperfections in how the employer had acted in applying the procedure that they had overlooked the allegations against them.

Even though they have rights to fair procedures in respect of the application of the disciplinary procedure I do not believe perfection is required of the employer. Sure, it must be sound and fair and transparent and in accordance with the procedures set out in the workplace.

But the absence of perfection, or a small infirmity in the steps taken, may not be enough for an employee to ground a claim for unfair dismissal on the basis that the procedure lacked natural justice if the allegation is a serious one such as assaulting a colleague to telling a customer to stop “wrecking my head” and “do one”.

Takeaway

My advice is if you are facing serious allegations like Dmitri and Susan is not to get too preoccupied looking for flaws in the procedure adopted to the detriment of addressing the serious allegation against you.

Because employers, especially small ones with finite resources, will not be held to a level of perfection in enforcing discipline in the workplace.

Yes, you are entitled to fair procedures; yes, you are entitled to natural justice; yes, you are entitled to fair play.