The Supreme Court's decision in Ruffley v The Board of Management of St Anne's School brings much needed clarity to the law of bullying in the workplace. The Supreme Court has reversed the controversial judgement of the High Court in 2016 which had resulted in not only the largest ever award for a bullying claim, but an apparent broadening of the definition of what constitutes "bullying" in the workplace. The Supreme Court's decision, which draws a clear distinction between "classic" bullying and a breach of fair procedures, will be a relief to employers, confirming that "conduct is to be judged according to the standard of human beings, and not of angels".

Facts of the case

The plaintiff, Ms Ruffley, was employed as a Special Needs Assistant in a School in Co Kildare (the "School"). She was subjected to an imperfect disciplinary process following an investigation into an alleged breach of School rules and subsequently went out on sick leave. Ms Ruffley ultimately sued the School, alleging she had suffered a recognisable psychiatric illness (i.e. a personal injury) as a direct result of being bullied by way of the flawed disciplinary process.

What have the Courts said so far?

At the High Court stage Ms Ruffley's claim succeeded and, significantly, she was awarded damages in the amount of €255,276; the largest ever bullying award in an Irish court. Quite apart from the quantum of the award, this decision raised a further red flag for employers in its apparent broadening of the definition of what constitutes "bullying". In particular, the High Court took the view that the flawed disciplinary process, in and of itself, amounted to bullying.

This decision was successfully appealed by the School to the Court of Appeal, which held that the High Court had "stretched" the definition of bullying "beyond breaking point". Significantly the Court of Appeal found that Ms Ruffley's treatment during the disciplinary process did not constitute an intention to destroy her dignity at work. Rather, although acknowledging that it was a "botched" disciplinary process, the Court of Appeal held that the conduct of the process did not come "anywhere close to meeting the definition of bullying".

Ms Ruffley appealed the Court of Appeal's decision to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's decision

The Supreme Court focused on the seminal decision of Quigley v Complex Tooling & Moulding Ltd in assessing the definition of what constitutes bullying. The Quigley case had held that to give rise to a claim for damages, bullying must be "repeated, inappropriate and undermining of the dignity of the employee at work". In addition, Quigley held that to succeed it must also be proved that the plaintiff "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".

The Supreme Court in Ruffley endorsed the Quigley test and took its analysis a step further, clarifying that while "the [disciplinary] procedure was clearly defective", a breach of fair procedures does not, in and of itself, constitute "bullying". The Court held that it is important "not to blur the distinction" between a claim for breach of procedures and a claim of bullying, noting that while the "denial of fair procedures is never a trivial matter" it did not, in this case, amount to "undermining of human dignity".

The Supreme Court helpfully shone a spotlight on the key elements of the test for bullying, focusing on the fundamental boxes to be ticked to trigger a claim for damages: that the conduct be (i) repeated; (ii) amount to inappropriate behaviour; and (iii) undermine the employee's dignity in the workplace.

1. Repeated: The Court emphasised that the requirement for conduct to be repeated in order to progress in the test for bullying requires a "pattern of behaviour", not a "number of incidents".

2. Inappropriate: Turning its attention to the need for such conduct to be "inappropriate", the Supreme Court clarified that "inappropriate behaviour" means behaviour which is inappropriate at a human level "not merely wrong" – i.e. it does not necessarily need to be unlawful or erroneous behaviour. Rather, the Court held that "the test looks to the question of propriety in human relations, rather than legality".

3. Undermine dignity at work: The Supreme Court also reviewed the requirement for such conduct to undermine dignity at work in order to constitute bullying. It was held that this is "a separate, distinct and important component" of the definition of bullying which "limits the claims which may be made to those which can be described as outrageous, unacceptable, and exceeding all bounds tolerated by decent society". Here it was held that the conduct which will qualify as undermining of an individual's right to dignity at work must be "both severe and normally offensive at a human level".

What does this mean for employers?

The Supreme Court in holding that "this novel case will set a benchmark for all bullying claims" has infused this complex area of law with some much needed clarity and certainty.

The Supreme Court has not only clarified the legal definition of bullying under Irish law, it has provided invaluable practical guidance to Irish employers in the precarious field of managing employees, affirming the need to strike a balance so as not to "disrupt the duty of managers to see that work is done". Significantly, the Court recognised that "few people subjected to reprimand or discipline accept it stoically; it is human nature to be offended". However, the Court noted that if bullying claims could be maintained in those everyday workplace situations, such as performance management or discipline, then prudent employers might opt not to conduct such procedures to avoid the risk of a bullying claim. This decision therefore incorporates a sensible approach to meeting the threshold test of bullying and, in so doing, mitigates the scope for claims of bullying to be levied against employers in everyday workplace scenarios.

While employers can take comfort that the Supreme Court has confirmed that the test for bullying is set very high, this decision does not afford employers a carte blanche approach to the conduct of internal procedures. However, provided employers continue to adopt a fair and reasonable approach when managing employees, sticking closely to their internal processes and affording employees fair procedures, this decision will serve to encourage employers to proceed with such management of employees' conduct and performance with confidence.