Saha v Imperial College of Science, Technology & Medicine [07.08.13]

PhD student fails to show that conduct of her supervisor and members of his team was in breach of s.1 Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Implications

The judgment is fact specific, but given the preponderance of evidence presented by the defence witnesses, Mr Justice Hamblen's conclusion that the conduct complained of did not amount to harassment is hardly surprising.

The decision represents a helpful reminder that for a claimant to succeed in a harassment claim, they must demonstrate that the conduct complained of was oppressive and unacceptable (as opposed to simply unreasonable and unattractive) and continued over a period of time rather than being a one off matter.

It is interesting to note that the Judge carefully considered the fact that the Claimant’s case was not supported by any factual witnesses. From a defendant’s perspective, the absence of supporting witness evidence should be a factor weighed up in deciding whether to resist a claim.

Background

The Claimant was a PhD student in the Division of Cell and Molecular Biology at Imperial College from October 2002 to September 2005. Her PhD supervisor up to 31 July 2004 was Dr Thierry Soldati. She claimed damages in excess of £1.5m arising from alleged harassment by Dr Soldati and members of his team.

Her case was that the harassment consisted of abusive emails and physical intimidation. The only witness called in support of her claim was the Claimant herself. A total of 12 witnesses were called for the defence, none of whom supported the Claimant's allegations. Members of the lab team recognised that Dr Soldati was a demanding supervisor with a direct and sometimes abrupt manner of communication. However, they did not consider that he ever bullied or harassed.

Decision

In dismissing the claim, Hamblen J held as follows:

  • The Claimant had become fixated on her case. She had gone over every detail again and again, to the extent that she believed that certain incidents occurred, even when they did not. A number of the allegations were clearly fanciful.
  • There was no research misconduct, which the Claimant claimed provided the motivation for the alleged harassment.
  • The alleged incidents which had been proved did not involve harassment. At most they involved treating the Claimant in an abrupt, peremptory and at times vexed manner. They did not involve aggressive, bullying or threatening behaviour.
  • Had Dr Soldati continued to insist on unreasonable demands and to ignore confidentiality issues a course of conduct capable of constituting harassment might have been made out. However, he had not done so.