More stress case decisions
Another claimant came to grief in the Court of Appeal recently. She had been a sales manager, selling houses on new build sites, until her resignation. She alleged that, during the year prior to her resignation, she had been required to work excessive hours without breaks or proper support, had been subjected to bullying by the area manager, had been forced to lie about the lack of interest in certain properties, and had taken no summer holiday.
She said she had suffered shock and distress after being removed from a large site to a smaller site due to alleged poor performance. During that period she had also suffered from personal misfortunes.
The trial Judge held that, although she had worked seven days a week on the large site, the site had been double manned .He also held that her psychiatric injury had neither been caused by stress at work nor by the conduct of the area manager, and that in any event the injury had not been reasonably foreseeable by the employers.
She appealed but the Court of Appeal dismissed the case saying that the trial Judge had made no significant error of fact. Although the employers had a lack of records and apparent lack of awareness about the Working Time Regulations and this provided a favourable background against which to assess whether there had been a breach of duty, that did not itself establish a breach of duty.
The judge had to consider the test in Hatton -v- Sutherland and was entitled to reach the conclusion that he did.
Stress case at dentist
However just when you think the law is becoming clearer, another case comes along to raise your uncertainty. On the very same day that the Court of Appeal was hearing Pakenham-Walsh, Mr Justice Tugendhat was hearing a case, brought by a claimant in person, where the employers, a Primary Care Trust, were applying for summary judgment on two issues arising out of an employee claiming damages for harassment and defamation.
She had worked for the trust as a dentist for 26 years. She had a difficult relationship with the day-to-day manager at the community dental service. They made complaints against each other. She alleged bullying, harassment and unfair treatment. Although another manager dealt with her complaint and made recommendations to improve matters, she claimed the situation had subsequently worsened.
She alleged that, in a further campaign of harassment, her manager had falsified information about her work, made serious allegations about her professional personal conduct and encouraged other members of staff to lodge false grievances against her. She tried to obtain statements refuting the allegations but was accused of bullying and harassing others and was eventually dismissed following disciplinary procedures. There was a six month period in which she was absent from work due to stress.
The trust argued that the claimant had no real prospect of succeeding in her claim as a joint statement of the medical experts concluded that her mental health problems were likely to have been life long and innate. They also argued that it was not reasonably foreseeable that she would suffer any injury as a result of any breaches of duty.
The Judge held that, based on the most recent expert’s reports, the claimant had no real prospects of success in proving that she had suffered psychiatric or physical injury caused by breaches of duty or contract that she alleged had taken place. It followed that the claims for damages in the harassment and defamation action had no real prospect of success.
However she did have a real prospect of success in proving that she had suffered mental distress and injury to her reputation. Given the uncertain scope of damages available and the relatively new legal claims for harassment and for breach of the implied term of a contract of employment, the procedure for summary judgment was not an appropriate one for deciding whether there was a real prospect of success. Given the state of the law developing in stress related claims, it was inappropriate to give summary judgment. The defendant’s application was refused.