The very recent Supreme Court decision in Ruffley v The Board of Management of Saint Anne’s School provides an important clarification in the law regarding claims for bullying and harassment. The reversal of the High Court’s previous landmark judgment will inform how employers approach issues of bullying and harassment and helpfully clarifies the line both between fair procedures and bullying; and, indeed, robust disciplinary action and bullying.

The law around workplace bullying has evolved significantly in Ireland over the past 15 years, with a growth in bullying claims being brought before the Courts and an even greater prevalence of allegations of workplace bullying arising for employers in the workplace.

While bullying has no place in the workplace, uncertainty in the law had placed employers in an invidious position in dealing with management conflicts, where what had been previously regarded as differences of opinion had progressed into allegations of bullying between managers and employees, which employers struggled to reconcile. The ultimate effect of such allegations can be significant, not just for the employer whose workplace systems break-down while they deal with the inter-personal conflict, but also for a manager who then is subject to investigation and potential sanction for just doing their job.

It is apparent from the judgments in Ruffley that there was a desire on behalf of the Supreme Court to bring some clarity to the law in this complex area, and Mr Justice O’Donnell noted that "[a]t some level this novel case will set a benchmark for all bullying claims." Mr Justice Charleton remarked that in considering cases like this "conduct is be judged according to the standard of human beings, and not of angels."

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff, Ms Ruffley, had been a Special Needs Assistant in a school since 1999. The Board concluded following an investigation that she should receive a disciplinary sanction. Ms Ruffley went on sick leave due to work-related stress which she claimed arose as a result of being bullied throughout the disciplinary process.

Ms Ruffley instituted proceedings against the School for damages for bullying and harassment principally in relation to the running of the disciplinary process. She was successful before the High Court which determined that Ms Ruffley had been subjected to "persistent inappropriate behaviour" and applied the definition of bullying set out in the statutory Code of Practice. Ms Ruffley was awarded €255,276 for psychiatric injury and loss of earnings.

This was appealed to the Court of Appeal which overturned the decision of the High Court in a 2-1 decision. The majority of the Court of Appeal considered that the essential question in the case was whether a claim in respect of a lack of fair procedures leading to an unfair result could itself amount to bullying. The Court held that while the disciplinary process was "hopelessly flawed", it did not come "anywhere close to the definition of bullying". This claim was understood to be the first substantive judgement of the Court of Appeal in a claim for personal injuries arising from work related stress. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Definition of Bullying

The Supreme Court has previously considered bullying in the workplace in Quigley v Complex Tooling & Moulding Ltd. In that case, Mr Justice Fennelly held that in order to give rise to a claim for damages, "bullying must be ‘repeated, inappropriate and undermining of the dignity of the employee at work". Furthermore, "the plaintiff cannot succeed in his claim unless he also proved that he suffered damage amounting to personal injury as a result of his employer’s breach of duty. Where the personal injury is not a direct physical kind it must amount to an identifiable psychiatric injury."

In Ruffley, the Supreme Court fundamentally agreed with the test for bullying in Quigley but tested and clarified this formula, ultimately holding that while "the procedure was clearly defective and liable to be so declared by any court", she had fallen short of satisfying the test for bullying and harassment.

Mr Justice O’Donnell considered Mr Justice Fennelly’s formula to ascertain whether bullying had occurred and while he found them important, he cautioned "against viewing these three matters as separate and self-standing issues as if in a statutory definition." Carefully examining each element of that formula, he noted that in relation to the term ‘repeated’, he held that it is not enough to point to two different events, but rather the focus is on a pattern of behaviour.

He also considered placed emphasis on the meaning of the term ‘dignity at work’, and held that this is "behaviour which is inappropriate at a human level." Indeed, he held that "[f]ocus on what is dignity in the workplace the denial of fair procedures is never a trivial matter but I do not think it can be comfortably said in this case, to be undermining of human dignity."

Mixed Arguments

The Supreme Court emphasised the importance of maintaining a distinction between a breach of procedures, and a claim of bullying entitling a party to substantial damages, holding that it is "important therefore not to blur the distinction between these two different claims by assuming that there is any logical connection between a breach of procedures, and a claim of bullying entitling a party to substantial damages."

The Supreme Court acknowledged that there may be cases in which disciplinary procedures are invoked mala fides to victimise an individual, but such a case would have to be explicitly made and then should be the subject of an express finding. In that regard, a case for bullying and harassment in a context of unfair procedures must be carefully considered and very specifically addressed, with the Supreme Court highlighting to claimants the alternative remedies which should be used in such cases.

Competing Interests

Employers will also welcome the Court’s practical approach concerning both the necessity and the reality of invoking disciplinary procedures in the workplace. The Supreme Court emphasised the desirability of adopting and applying a test which balances "the objective of compensating the victim of a serious wrongdoing, deterring damaging behaviour, and encouraging prudent and sensible practices" with the risk of "encouraging a proliferation of claims more generally, and inhibiting workplace activity to an excessive degree". Mr Justice Charleton, in particular, placed emphasis on ensuring that a balance is struck so as not to “disrupt the duty of managers to see that work is done”.

Mr Justice O’Donnell noted that "few people subjected to reprimand or discipline accept it stoically … all the more so if there is some justification" and remarking specifically on the Court’s desire to avoid the negative social cost which would be incurred "if the test adopted in relation to liability for bullying led schools or employers to avoid pressing disciplinary matters". Mr Justice Charleton noted that "bullying is not about being tough on employees. Appropriate interventions may not be pleasant and must simply be taken in the right spirit. Sometimes a disciplinary intervention may be necessary."

Conclusions

While workplace bullying can never be tolerated, one would hope that the approach taken by the Supreme Court will assist employers in dealing with what might be described as retaliatory allegations of bullying and harassment in response to unwanted, but genuinely given, criticisms by managers of work performance.

While a hugely important case, the Supreme Court decision in Ruffley does not mean that claims for workplace bullying will no longer arise. Employer should proceed with similar vigilance in managing workplace relationships to avoid and deal firmly with incidents of workplace bullying. However, Ruffley will give employers greater confidence in moving forward carefully with fair and reasonable performance and disciplinary procedures.