Employee’s bid for damages overturned by pornographic emails
The recent High Court decision in the case Williams v Leeds United Football Club demonstrates particularly starkly a longstanding but important principle that an employer can defend a wrongful dismissal damages claim on the basis of the employee’s gross misconduct, even if the employer was unaware of the misconduct at the time of the employee’s dismissal.
Wrongful dismissal occurs where the employer breaches a term of the employment contract – here the claim was based on the employee receiving an inadequate notice period.
Williams, a technical director for a football club, had an annual reward package worth over £200,000. He was given notice of dismissal, but one week later was dismissed with immediate effect. He was entitled to 12 months’ notice under his employment contract. He sued the employer for damages for the balance of his 12-month notice period.
The basis for Williams’ summary dismissal was the employer discovering that around five years previously he had used its email system to forward an email containing pornographic images to a male friend at another football club. In defending the employee’s damages claim in court, the employer also relied on another alleged act of misconduct – forwarding the email to a junior female colleague and another male friend at another club – which the employer only discovered some months after Williams’ dismissal.
The employee argued that although his conduct might have been inappropriate or not “best practice”, it was not sufficiently serious a breach of contract to justify dismissal without notice.
The judge accepted that the sending of the email – the use of the employer’s email system to send obscene and pornographic images to a junior female employee and others – was a very serious breach of the duty of trust and confidence implied into every employment contract, and was sufficiently serious to break that contract, justifying dismissal on the grounds of gross misconduct. William’s claim for damages was dismissed.
The principle that employers can defend wrongful dismissal claims on the basis of misconduct discovered only after the employee’s dismissal is nothing new in legal terms. However, there are nonetheless two interesting facets to this particular case. First, the misconduct relied on predated the employee’s dismissal by five years. The fact that the employee’s misconduct was historic made no difference to the outcome of the case since the employer was unaware of it at the time.
Secondly, and this also made no difference to the result, the employer had specifically set out to investigate a number of senior managers to see if it could discover grounds for termination for gross misconduct, thereby saving the cost of their notice periods.
Past misdeeds can certainly return to haunt executives if their employer sets out to dig for material which can enable their cheap removal.