The Court of Appeal has just delivered an important decision concerning bullying in the workplace. Judgment in Ruffley v The Board of Management of St Anne’s School was delivered on 8 December 2015, and in a 2-1 decision, the majority overturned what was until now the highest known award given by the High Court in a workplace bullying case.
The plaintiff, Ms Ruffley, had been a special needs assistant in a school since 1999. She was involved in a number of incidents circa 2009, and these were referred to the school’s Board of Management. Following investigation, the Board concluded that she should receive a severe grade warning, which was a sanction just below dismissal. Her trade union appealed this sanction, but very shortly afterwards Ms Ruffley went on sick leave due to work-related stress and remained out of work since then.
Ms Ruffley claimed damages from the school for bullying and harassment, essentially with regard to the running of the disciplinary process. She was successful in the High Court in this regard and was awarded €255,276 (for psychiatric injury and loss of earnings), the highest known award in a bullying and harassment case to date.
However, this decision has now been overturned by the Court of Appeal, which has sounded a note of caution over the judiciary attempting to widen the wellknown definition of what constitutes workplace bullying. The President of the Court of Appeal, together with Ms Justice Irvine, overturned the High Court’s decision. They called the investigation and disciplinary process “hopelessly flawed”, but also said that “at worst, this was a botched disciplinary process” and it “does not bring its conduct anywhere close to meeting the definition of bullying”. Importantly, the President stated that “the definition of bullying has to be stretched beyond breaking point to fit this case”.
While there was sympathy for Ms Ruffley, the majority decisions made clear that workplace bullying has a precise definition that must be adhered to. However, one point of certainty remains, and that is the fact that Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan did not agree with the majority decision and instead she determined that the school’s behaviour was sufficiently inappropriate to allow Ms Ruffley to succeed in her claim. This minority decision therefore leaves the door ajar and may encourage a future plaintiff to take a similar claim.