The Court of Appeal has recently given useful guidance on the how employers should deal with stress at work claims arising out of their internal procedures such as disciplinary procedures.
In the case of Deadman v Bristol City Council, Mr Deadman's stress stemmed from the way in which the Council had conducted a disciplinary investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made against him. Under the Council anti-discrimination policy all claims of harassment were to be treated sensitively and should have been investigated by a three member panel. The allegations in this instance were only investigated by a two member panel, which caused Mr Deadman to raise a grievance. The hearing convened to hear Mr Deadman's grievance set aside the findings of the investigation panel solely on the basis of the panel's composition and not because of the merits of the allegations. This led the grievance hearing to inform Mr Deadman that the claims against him might be subject to further investigation and notice of such an investigation was given to him by way of a letter dated 6 May 1998. Mr Deadman claimed the letter had simply been left on his desk on the morning of 6 May while the Council argued that the letter would not have been ready to be delivered until much later in the day.
Mr Deadman had been diagnosed by his doctor in March 1998 as suffering from stress at work and after consulting the doctor again following receipt of the 6 May letter, he ceased work permanently on 13 May 1998 as a result of depression. Mr Deadman proceeded to bring a claim in the High Court for damages for personal injury as a result of the Council's breach of its duty of care towards him and/or its breach of his employment contract.
The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court's decision to award damages to Mr Deadman. The Court of Appeal agreed with the High Court that the contents of the 6 May letter were not insensitive and that the Council's anti-harassment policy was incorporated into Mr Deadman's contract of employment. However, the Court of Appeal held that the Council only had a contractual obligation to follow its published procedures and did not have an obligation to act sensitively in this regard. The Council had therefore breached Mr Deadman's employment contract by having only a two member committee investigate the allegations of harassment but had not breached its duty of care towards him.
The Court of Appeal held that it was not reasonably foreseeable that an appointment of a panel of two could have been expected to cause Mr Deadman psychiatric harm. Furthermore, with regard to the Council's duty of care, the Court of Appeal underlined the guidelines laid down in Hatton v Sutherland, which stated that the harm to the particular employee must be reasonably foreseeable. Such foreseeability depended on what the Council could reasonably be expected to know about Mr Deadman. In this instance, Mr Deadman appeared to be in good health and had an excellent attendance record so there was nothing to indicate to the Council that he would be harmed by the ordinary operation of the complaint investigation procedure.
This case is interesting in that it considers the effect of disciplinary procedures on the psychiatric health of employees rather than simply the effect of work in general and also because it highlighted that the employer's internal procedures for handling harassment complaints can be held to be contractual.