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Employment Claims Health and Safety

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.”