Following on from a recent case before the Court of Appeal, which significantly reduced an award of damages in a workplace bullying action, the High Court, in Mona Jackson-v-James Cahill has awarded €40,000 to an employee in a successful workplace bullying claim.

The facts

The plaintiff employee worked as an associate solicitor for the defendant employer for approximately four years. The plaintiff alleged that she had been subjected to a number of instances of aggressive and inappropriate behaviour by the defendant in that:-

  • She had suffered unequal treatment in relation to bonus payments
  • She received unwarranted criticism in relation to finalising costs in a medical negligence case
  • The defendant sent her an aggressive text message in order to finalise the terms of a reduction to her remuneration
  • She was harassed in order to finalise her position in relation to pay cuts
  • She was depicted in front of staff members as having no further interest in the firm after receiving a bonus
  • There were issues in relation to the payment of her practising certificate
  • She was told she was paid more generously than staff who had families to support in circumstances where the plaintiff had no children of her own
  • She received an unsealed hand written letter from the defendant stating, among other things, that she was not bringing in sufficient fees
  • She was subjected to demands for an immediate reply to the abovementioned letter in front of another member of staff by the defendant

Decision

The High Court held that the plaintiff had "substantiated a majority of her claims of workplace bullying" and awarded her €50,000 in general damages. However, the Court reduced the award by 20% due to the plaintiff's failure to mention the circumstances surrounding an unsuccessful hip surgery and her institution of separate High Court proceedings against a number of parties, to her psychiatrist. The High Court also took into account the fact that the plaintiff applied for jobs with a number of other firms in Dublin stating that she would be available for work immediately if she were successful in her application.

The Court considered the definition of workplace bullying as set out in the Code of Practice appended to the Industrial Relations Act, 1990 and also considered the Supreme Court decision in Quigley –v– Complex Tooling and Machinery and the Court of Appeal's decision in Una Ruffley –v– Board of Management of St. Anne's School in setting out what constitutes workplace bullying. In Quigley, it was accepted that bullying must be "repeated, inappropriate and undermining of the dignity of the employee at work". However, in Ruffley, the Court went further to provide a more onerous test to be met in that a plaintiff must be able to prove:

  1. That the plaintiff suffered injury other than ordinary occupational stress
  2. The injury must be attributable to the workplace
  3. That the harm suffered must have been reasonably foreseeable in all the circumstances

The High Court held that the proof of the above three requirements is dependent on the application of an objective as opposed to a subjective test. In the present case, the Court was satisfied that the plaintiff had met the threshold of workplace bullying in accordance with the three-part test above.

The High Court held that the events outlined had caused or significantly contributed to the plaintiff suffering from depression and anxiety.

Comment

This case highlights the widening of the parameters within which a Court will assess a claim for bullying in the workplace.This is illustrated by the fact that the Court in this case assessed each alleged instance of bullying and determined whether each instance had, after applying the objective standard, met the threshold of bullying.

Until this case it was generally agreed that the Court of Appeal in the Ruffley decision had effectively narrowed the basis upon which a court was willing to find actionable loss in bullying cases. This decision may offer renewed hope for plaintiffs in establishing successful bullying and harassment claims in the workplace.