Coventry University v Mian2

In Coventry University v Mian, the Court of Appeal has held that an employer did not breach its duty of care to an employee by bringing disciplinary proceedings against her. It had been alleged that the employee had been complicit with a colleague in the preparation of false and misleading references which he then used to obtain new employment.

Facts of the case

Dr Mian was employed by Coventry University (the University) as a senior lecturer in the Biomolecular and Sports Sciences Department, part of the Health and Life Sciences Faculty.

One of Dr Mian’s colleagues, Dr Javed, was to be made redundant. He obtained an extension to his employment before leaving to take up a post at Greenwich University (Greenwich).

In 2007, Greenwich contacted Dr Merriman, Dean of the Health and Life Sciences Faculty, expressing concern about a “large disconnect” between statements made in Dr Javed’s reference and his performance. The reference, on University headed notepaper, purported   to be written by Dr Mian and signed by her. It contained her direct dial telephone number and was over three pages long. It was undisputed that it contained many important inaccuracies, and significantly overstated Dr Javed’s qualities and qualifications. Dr Merriman asked Dr Daly, an Associate Dean of the Faculty, to investigate how the reference had been provided.

After investigating, Dr Daly invited Dr Mian to a preliminary meeting where she denied writing the reference and claimed the draft references were all provided by Dr Javed, whom she felt intimidated by. Dr Daly then sought further information from Dr Mian’s line manager on her relationship with Dr Javed, which was apparently cordial.

Dr Daly recommended disciplinary proceedings against Dr Mian for gross misconduct and consulted with the University’s HR department. Dr Mian was then signed off sick and the disciplinary hearing, which was undertaken by an independent assessor, was delayed by several months. Dr Mian provided a written response to the allegations rather than attending the hearing. The independent assessor dismissed the allegations.

Dr Mian left to work elsewhere and brought proceedings arguing that in commencing disciplinary proceedings without undertaking further enquiries, the University had been in breach of contract and/or negligent so as to cause her psychiatric injury.

His Honourable Judge Barries upheld Dr Mian’s claim, but the University appealed. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and dismissed the claim. The test the judge should have applied to the facts was whether the decision to instigate disciplinary proceedings had been “unreasonable” in the sense that it had been outside the range of reasonable decisions open to an employer in the circumstances. This required an objective assessment, not one that was made with the benefit of hindsight.

Points to note

This case illustrates the need for employers to undertake thorough investigations into disciplinary allegations. It is important for an employer to clearly define the allegations at the outset. The investigation should involve searching for relevant contemporaneous evidence and speaking to each relevant witness before putting the allegations to the individual who is the subject of the allegation. As the court put it, reasonable employers can reach different decisions without breaching their duty to their employee.