The Court of Appeal (the “CA”) recently overturned the largest ever bullying award in a decision which sends a salutary signal on any attempt to widen the parameters of what may be held to constitute workplace bullying.

The claimant had succeeded in the High Court where O'Neill J awarded €255,276 after finding that she had suffered a "definite and identifiable psychiatric injury from which she continues to suffer significantly and will continue to do so for some time into the future."  The High Court decision signalled alarm bells for employers both in terms of the quantum of the award and the broadening of the definition of what constituted "bullying".  The High Court was of the view that the employer's disciplinary process and the unfair treatment afforded to the claimant could be described as bullying.

The claimant was a special needs assistant and locked the door of the sensory room, a measure not allowed by the school and which raised child protection issues. Separately another incident occurred where she marked that a goal had been achieved on a pupil's scorecard, when in fact it had not been achieved. This prompted a disciplinary process and the claimant went on stress related sick leave. The High Court found that the Board's behaviour in the disciplinary process was "persistent" "inappropriate" and "wholly undermined the claimant's dignity at work."

The School appealed on a number of grounds:

  • That the disciplinary process did not meet the definition of bullying that had been relied on in earlier court decisions;
  • That there was no causal connection established between the offensive conduct complained of and the mental health issues of the claimant;
  • That the award was excessive.

In a favourable determination for employers, the CA found that the employee had been treated unfairly by a "botched" disciplinary process but that the conduct of the school management did not come close to meeting the definition of bullying set out in Quigley v Complex Tooling and Moulding [2009] 1IR 349 where the Supreme Court accepted the definition of bullying as set out in the Industrial Relations Act 1990 (Code of Practice Detailing Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace) ( S.I. 17 of 2002). The accepted definition 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".

Ryan J found that the definition of bullying as set out above had to be "stretched beyond breaking point to fit this case". The CA was also concerned that if the High Court decision stood it would widen the tort of bullying to all sorts of situations it never intended to cover.

At its worst, the Court stated that it was a "hopelessly flawed" disciplinary process, however regardless of the flaws it was not a case of repeated inappropriate offensive behaviour intended to destroy the claimant's dignity at work. The Court found just one incident that might be interpreted as showing inappropriate behaviour on the part of the school that could have undermined the claimant's dignity at work however this was an isolated incident and didn’t follow the repeated pattern necessary to qualify under the definition set out above.

Message

The case is good news for employers as it rows back from the wide interpretation afforded to workplace bullying as a result of the High Court decision. The CA decision reiterates the need for an objective interpretation of what is workplace bullying and reaffirms the definition of bullying as set out in the Code.

Ruffley v Board of Management of St Anne's School [2015] IECA 287