Case update (2): Disciplinary proceedings and breach of contract/negligence

unfair-dismissal-250Summary: Is it enough to have reasonable grounds to suspect that allegations are true in order to commence disciplinary proceedings against an employee?

Yes, says the Court of Appeal in the case of Coventry University v Mian available here.

Facts: Dr Mian was employed as a senior lecturer by Coventry University. One of her colleagues, Dr Javed, was made redundant and took up a post with Greenwich University. Subsequently, Greenwich University queried a “large disconnect” between the reference provided by Coventry University and Dr Javed’s performance. The reference, on Coventry University headed notepaper, appeared to be written and signed by Dr Mian. However, it contained a number of false statements and significantly overstated Dr Javed’s qualities and qualifications.

Coventry University interviewed Dr Mian as part of an investigation into how the reference had been provided. Dr Mian denied writing the reference, saying that she had agreed to be Dr Javed’s referee and he had provided her with references he would like her to produce. Dr Mian had refused to use them and instead saved these to her computer. Instead she wrote shorter references for him, along the lines she had prepared for others, but had deleted the ones relating to him (but not those relating to others).

Coventry University found that Dr Mian had a case to answer for gross misconduct and recommended disciplinary proceedings to consider the allegation that Dr Mian had been complicit with Dr Javed in the preparation of false and misleading employment references. Disciplinary proceedings were started and Dr Mian was invited to a disciplinary hearing.

Dr Mian was then signed off sick. Eventually the disciplinary hearing was held in her absence and was taken by an independent assessor. Dr Mian provided a written response to the allegations. Her union representative argued that while she had been “guilty of stupidity and naivety”, she had not been complicit. Professor Noon dismissed the allegations.

Dr Mian took a job at another organisation and brought claims against Coventry University. She argued that in commencing disciplinary proceedings without undertaking further enquiries, the University had been in breach of contract and/or negligent so as to cause her psychiatric injury.

The Judge upheld her claim. However, the Court of Appeal overturned the Judge’s decision. The Court of Appeal said that the correct question to ask was not whether the allegations were true but rather if there were reasonable grounds to suspect that they were. At the time of commencing the investigation, there were reasonable grounds, in other words grounds within the range of reasonable responses, to suggest that Dr Mian had falsified the reference. There was no breach of duty of care.

Implications: Be aware that decisions to instigate disciplinary proceedings can give rise to claims for breach of contract and/or a claim for personal injury based in negligence. Employers must carry out a thorough and fair investigation before any decision is taken to commence disciplinary proceedings. However, the good news is that following such investigation, if an employer can show that it had reasonable grounds to commence disciplinary proceedings then it should be able to successfully defend itself in any subsequent claim.