We represented the Board of Management of a school in its successful appeal against a High Court decision which awarded a Special Needs Assistant at the school €255,000 for alleged bullying in the workplace.
The High Court judgment had expanded the accepted definition of bullying but the Court of Appeal reversal of the award has affirmed the status quo. The Court of Appeal judgment demonstrates that even if a Plaintiff can illustrate an entirely unsatisfactory or "botched" disciplinary process, this will not in itself be enough to meet the requisite standards for a successful bullying claim.
Decision of the High Court
The High Court concluded that the Special Needs Assistant's (the "Plaintiff") treatment throughout the disciplinary process was "severe" and inappropriate within the meaning of the definition of "bullying in the workplace".
Furthermore, it was held that the Plaintiff suffered an anxiety and depressive disorder as a result of the way in which the disciplinary process was conducted by the School Management.
The Plaintiff was awarded damages of €255,000 including €47,000 for future loss of earnings.
Decision of Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal has now found that the employee was unfairly treated by virtue of the "hopelessly flawed" disciplinary proceedings, but regardless of the flaws, the Court concluded that the conduct of school management in that regard did not come anywhere close to the definition of bullying as set out in Quigley v Complex Tooling and Moulding 1. In that case the Supreme Court accepted the definition of bullying set out in the Industrial Relations Act 1990 2 as "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".
Mr. Justice Ryan stated that the definition of bullying as interpreted by Mr. Justice O'Neill in the High Court had "to be stretched beyond breaking point to fit this case".
Despite the fact that the Court of Appeal was particularly critical of the disciplinary procedure invoked by the School Management, describing it as a "botched disciplinary process" and "hopelessly flawed", it held that this was "not a case of offensive behaviour intended to destroy the Plaintiff's dignity at work". The Court of Appeal concluded that the "mere fact that a superior puts an allegation to an employee does not mean that he or she is bullying the person".
Interestingly, Mr. Justice Irvine also commented that the Plaintiff should have sought a declaration as to the invalidity of both the original decision of the Board and the decision which was made on appeal, rather than pursue a civil action for damages.
This judgment provides very helpful clarification of what constitutes "bullying in the workplace" and should provide some comfort to personnel tasked with conducting workplace investigations and engaging with disciplinary procedures.
1. Quigley v Complex Tooling and Moulding  1IR 349
2. Industrial Relations Act 1990 (Code of Practice Detailing Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace) (Declaration Order) 2002 (SI No 17 of 2002)
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