Employers face increased risk of duplication of claims by employees before both the Workplace Relations Commission and the Irish High Court on foot of a recent decision by the Court of Appeal. We examine the rationale for this decision and outline the likely implications for employers.
In a recent Court of Appeal judgment in Culkin v Sligo County Council & Anor , the Court ruled that any plaintiff who is unsuccessful in a claim of discrimination or harassment in the workplace before the Workplace Relations Commission ("WRC") can also sue his or her employer in a separate personal injuries claim to the High Court arising out of those same alleged acts.
The Court of Appeal decision overturned a High Court decision in which it was held that personal injury proceedings taken by a former employee of a local authority should be dismissed because they represented a duplication of the plaintiff's equality case against the local authority. This duplication of proceedings was considered to be "an abuse of process".
Mr Culkin is a retired engineer who was employed by Sligo County Council in various roles over a period of 39 years. Mr Culkin was promoted a number of times during his employment before reaching the rank of senior executive technician. Mr Culkin claimed that he began experiencing difficulties at work in or around 1996 when a new supervisor was appointed.
Mr Culkin claimed that he was subjected to bullying, victimisation and isolation at work. In particular, his claim included allegations that malicious rumours were spread about him, he was ordered to perform tasks below his level of competence, he was excluded and isolated socially, and he was generally treated with hostility.
Mr Culkin alleged that this behaviour resulted in him suffering from a number of psychological and physiological symptoms.
Court of Appeal Decision
Justice Hogan held that the section of the Employment Equality Act, 1998 (the "Act") which had been previously relied on to rule out a common law claim for personal injury where a claim had already been pursued at the WRC/Equality Tribunal had been interpreted too narrowly. Justice Hogan stated that Section 101 of the Act "serves to bar complementary claims for discrimination before the Tribunal and at common law in respect of claims based on failure to comply with an equal remuneration term or an equality clause. But it has no wider meaning and, specifically, it does not bar subsequent personal injuries claims per se where an earlier discrimination claim before the Tribunal has failed."
Justice Hogan did however also state that it is "open to the court of trial to determine that the personal injuries claim – or, at least, parts of the claim – should fail on the ground that it amounted in substance to a collateral attack on the decision of the Equality Tribunal".
This new judgment highlights the very real risk that employees may avail of more than one avenue in pursuing a claim for harassment against their employers. Employers should be aware that successfully defending a discrimination or harassment claim before the WRC will not automatically prevent a current or former employee from bringing a separate personal injuries claim against the employer which may arise from the same set of alleged acts.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.