A South Australian Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF) relief chauffeur, who was stood down for using a work vehicle for personal reasons, has been awarded compensation after she suffered a major depressive disorder as a result of unreasonable management action taken against her.1
On 16 April 2010, Ms Rammell was provided with a letter which made various allegations against her of misconduct in her employment. The letter alleged, among other things, that she had improperly used a Government Vehicle when she “removed property belonging to another from a recycling bin with the intention of permanently depriving the owner of the property” and placed this property in the Government Vehicle.
Ms Rammell was advised that the matter would be investigated and that pending the completion of the investigation, she was not to contact other DTF employees and was to be placed on alternative duties at another workplace.
The alternative duties required Ms Rammell to complete clerical and administrative work. She only had basic computer skills and had no previous experience in a clerical or administrative role. She was also not introduced to the employees around her new work station and, accordingly, was not sure whether they were DTF employees and whether she was allowed to talk to them.
Ms Rammell became severely distressed by DTF’s actions and was unable to work for approximately three weeks. After taking up her new duties, she was diagnosed with a psychiatric illness and became totally incapacitated for work from mid-July 2010.
On 29 March 2011, she lodged a compensation claim with DTF, alleging that she had suffered a mental disability as a result of employment-related events before and after 16 April 2010. This was rejected by DTF on the basis that the alleged disability arose from “reasonable disciplinary action taken by the DFT in a reasonable manner or from administrative action taken in a reasonable manner by the DTF in connection with her employment”.
Ms Rammell was not provided with an update as to the progress of the investigation until 28 June 2010. The outcome of the disciplinary inquiry into the alleged misconduct was not completed until 27 June 2011, at which time Ms Rammell was advised that the majority of allegations were found to be proven. She was issued with a first and final warning and transferred to alternative duties at her substantive remuneration level.
Deputy President Hannon found that the actions taken by DTF on 16 April 2010, which were the predominant cause of Ms Rammell’s injury, “were not reasonable actions or were not taken in a reasonable manner, and the subsequent causative actions taken by the employer to implement the decision were not taken in a reasonable manner or were unreasonable in that they were taken as a consequence of the unreasonable action on 16 April 2010”.
His Honour commented that it was unreasonable to suspend the worker from her employment as a chauffeur on the basis of the allegations made and to subject her to what would have been a humiliating and stressful experience. Further he commented that restricting her ability to contact DTF employees was made without adequate consideration of whether such serious and isolating action was appropriate, or whether it would have an impact on her.
Though his Honour found that the alternative duties were not unreasonable, the combination of being assigned non-essential research tasks in an “isolated environment”, while awaiting the outcome of an investigation of an unknown length, was unreasonable and aggravated Ms Rammell’s injury.
As such, Ms Rammell’s injury was held to be compensable.
Bottom line for employers
When implementing disciplinary action, employers should take time to assess whether the action and process followed is appropriate in the circumstances and give consideration to the impact that such action will have on an individual employee. In particular, employers must ensure that any decision to suspend an employee during a workplace investigation is reasonable and supported by the circumstances in that case.