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Significant Award For Employee Dismissed due to Protected Disclosure

Facts: The Complainant commenced work on 5th August 2021 as a part-time receptionist in the smaller of the two veterinary practices owned by the Respondent. Only two staff were required at any one time, being a receptionist and vet. The Complainant had been informed by the Respondent that he was concerned that cash had been going missing from the till on a number of occasions and therefore in September 2021, when the Complainant noticed that cash was missing from the till and that the receipts didn’t tally, she began to double print receipts so that she could prove transactions that she had made on the till. On the basis that there were only two people working at any one time, the Complainant was confident that the offender was the vet and reported incidents involving him to the Respondent. The Respondent indicated that he already knew but thanked her for highlighting it. However, immediately after the report was made, the vet behaved aggressively towards the Complainant and made comments such as “head office don’t need to know everything that’s going on”.

The Complainant was surprised that no action appeared to be taken on foot of her complaint. Matters escalated over the subsequent months with medication going missing from the shelves.

On 16th December 2021, the Complainant witnessed the vet pocketing payment for medication sold to a customer.  When she confronted him, she was told “you don’t know the amount of s**t you just got yourself into.” When the Complainant made a further report to the Respondent, he told her that although he knew about the thefts, he could not get a replacement vet in that locality. Due to the continuing adverse treatment the Complainant received from the vet, it was clear to her that he had been informed that she reported him and working with him became impossible. One incident resulted in her being told to “go outside and cry little girl” if she was upset.

In September 2021, the Complainant was offered a full-time position covering the other receptionist’s maternity leave, which she accepted in October 2021 and was due to start in January 2022. The Complainant was relying on this income to meet orders in family law proceedings.

On 31st December 2021, prior to the Complainant taking up the full-time position, she received a phonecall from the Respondent stating that it wouldn’t work out between herself and the vet and that one of them needed to go.  He went on to state that he needed to retain the vet, therefore the Complainant’s position was terminated. She was told that she could leave as soon as she obtained other work or when suited her and that she would receive a glowing reference. However, in the meantime, she agreed to provide maternity cover for the first week in January. During this period, the vet called her over to look at his computer showing her that her job was advertised. She did not return to work the next week.

On 12th January, the Complainant wrote to the Respondent to request reasons for her dismissal. The Complainant lodged a number of claims against the Respondent including a claim for Protected Disclosure Dismissal under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 (“the Act”). She contended that she was dismissed solely because she had reported the vet’s criminal wrongdoing and that her performance was otherwise of an extremely high standard, evidenced by her being offered the full-time role from January 2022. It was only after the Workplace Relations Commission (“WRC”) claim was lodged that the Respondent, for the first time, became hostile towards her.  He cited her own behaviour including that she was a fantasist, rude and undermined colleagues. This was entirely contrary to the relationship that existed up until that date.

It should be noted that in this case, no evidence was given on the first day of hearing and although the Respondent lodged a response refuting the claims other than the Complainant not having received a contract, he did not appear at the second hearing due to being short staffed and he did not request a postponement as he informed the Adjudicator that he wanted it over with. Therefore, the hearing proceeded in his absence and the Complainant’s evidence was uncontested.

Decision: The Adjudicator, Emile Daly, was satisfied that the Complainant’s reasonably held belief of criminal wrongdoing was reported to the Respondent by way of telephone and email and therefore a Protected Disclosure had been made by the Complainant to the Respondent. Due to the proximity of the email and the Complainant’s dismissal and without any contrary evidence from the Respondent, the Adjudicator held that her dismissal was due to the Protected Disclosure in contravention of the Act, permitting the Adjudicator to make a just and equitable award to the Complainant.  The Adjudicator awarded the Complainant one and a half year’s salary, being €15,600 which she regarded as just and equitable in the circumstances, even though the Complainant had only been employed for five months and the Adjudicator noted that the evidence was uncontested. The Adjudicator accepted the Complainant taking up a course in college as sufficient to meet her obligation to mitigate her loss.

Takeaway for the Employers: Protected Disclosures must be taken seriously by employers who must investigate disclosures and protect those making them from any adverse treatment. While this decision is tainted by the lack of evidence or arguments on behalf of the Respondent, it is worth noting the high level of award that the Adjudicator granted to a part-time employee with only five months’ service.

Link  – https://www.workplacerelations.ie/en/cases/2023/april/adj-00038820.html

Authors – Anne O’Connell, Nicola MacCarthy,

31st May 2023

Anne O’Connell Solicitors

19-22 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2


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