Decision awarding special needs assistant damages for bullying overturned by Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal has allowed an appeal by the Board of Management of St. Anne’s School, which challenged the awarding of €255,276 in damages to Ms Una Ruffley on foot of her claim for bullying and harassment during her employment as a special needs assistant at St. Anne’s School.

The case concerned a series of events which transpired in St. Anne’s school, following an incident in which Ms Ruffley had locked the door of a sensory room containing a pupil.

The incident had resulted in disciplinary measures being taken against Ms Ruffley by the principal of the school, Ms Dempsey,

Following a further incident in which Ms Ruffley was accused of “falsifying” a form, due to an incorrectly ticked box, Ms Dempsey brought the issue to the school’s board of management.

Throughout, Ms Ruffley had maintained that other special needs assistants also locked the sensory door from time to time, and that she was therefore being treated unfairly.

While Ms Dempsey claimed she had asked the other special needs assistants, who had claimed this was not so, a subsequent survey conducted by Ms Ruffley revealed that many had, and would have admitted the fact had they been able to do so anonymously.

She therefore took action through a solicitor, who challenged the disciplinary actions of the school board, on the grounds that Ms Ruffley had not been able to attend the disciplinary process, that she was being treated unfairly, and that the disciplinary measures were too severe.

However, the board’s decision, to issue her a warning which would sit on her record for eighteen months, remained unchanged.

During this period Ms Ruffley began to feel that she was being bullied by Ms Dempsey, in particular following a meeting in which she alleged that she was “humiliated, denigrated and reduced to tears”, and a subsequent incident in which she was accused of being late.

Ms Ruffley was later diagnosed with clinical depression and severe anxiety, with symptoms which the trial judge concluded were referable to an identifiable psychiatric injury.

The initial judgment by O’Neill J was very critical of Ms Ruffley’s treatment by the board and the principal.

The trial judge found that Ms Ruffley had been treated inappropriately, and that this had affected her dignity in the work place, resulting in a definite psychiatric injury which was deserving of damages.

However, the judgment was challenged on the basis that the behaviour was not bullying, that there was no causal link between the actions of the appellant and the injury suffered, and that the damages were excessive.

Delivering her judgment, Ms Justice Irvine, focused on the first of these issues, agreeing with her colleagues that the second ground must fail due to the fact that causation was supported by medical evidence, and agreeing that the third aspect must succeed.

The Judge then considered the definition of “Workplace Bullying” as defined by para. 5 of the schedule to the Industrial Relations Act 1990 (Code of Practice Detailing Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace) (Declaration) Order 2002 (SI Number 17/2002).

The Judge also noted that the test for the Court in cases of bullying was objective, as found by Kearns P. in Glynn v. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform IEHC 133 and that bullying could happen in the context of a disciplinary process.

Considering the jurisdiction of the appellate Court, the Judge followedHay .v. O’Grady 1 IR 210 which finds that if the findings of fact made by the trial judge are supported by credible evidence, the appellate court is bound by such findings no matter the weight of the testimony against them.

Further, an appellate court should be slow to substitute its own inference of fact where such depends upon oral evidence of recollection of fact and a different inference has been drawn by the trial judge. However, in the drawing of inferences from circumstantial evidence, an appellate court is in as good a position as the trial judge.

The Judge followed the case of Quigley v. Complex Tooling and Moulding Limited 1 IR 349, in which the Supreme Court found that bullying had to be 1) repeated; 2) inappropriate; and 3) undermining the dignity of the employee at work. This test was therefore applied to the actions of the defendant and Ms Dempsey.

In relation to the initial disciplinary meetings, the Judge noted that any action must be considered in light of the uncontested evidence that locking a child in a room that had no observation window amounted to an action of “restraint” contrary to The Children First national guidelines, was conduct that had placed the child concerned at risk and that all issues of a child protection nature were matters for the board.

With regards to Ms Dempsey bringing Ms Ruffley’s behaviour to the board, following the “falsifying” of a form, the Judge found that this would only be inappropriate if Ms Dempsey’s decision not to let Ms Ruffley amend the alleged “mistake” was inappropriate and undermined Ms Ruffley’s dignity in the work place.

The Judge did not find that this was so. She therefore went on to consider whether the actions of the board constituted bullying.

While denying Ms Ruffley an opportunity to defend herself did constitute a violation of natural justice principles, the Judge found that it was not unfair for the incident of the locked door to come before the board, even if other special needs assistants had carried out similar actions.

Further, the conclusion of the trial judge that the outcome for Ms Ruffley would have been different had Ms Dempsey conducted an enquiry of the assistants before reporting the matter to the board is not borne out by the evidence, nor was the trial judge’s conclusion that the sanction imposed by the board would have been less severe had it known of the conduct of other assistants.

As Ms Ruffley was the only assistant who had been actually caught locking the door, it did not seem to the Judge that she was being singled out for unequal treatment.

Finally, with regards to the sanctions imposed, the Judge found no evidence to suggest that the sanction was too severe, or that the board’s treatment of Ms Ruffley amounted to inappropriate behaviour.

The board was fully aware of Ms Ruffley’s case, and remained convinced that its initial sanction was the correct one.

The Judge found that: “It seems to me that the trial judge’s inference that the plaintiff’s case was not properly considered can only be ascribed to his subjective view that such was the strength of the plaintiff’s case that the board would have reversed its decision if it had properly applied its mind to the full facts.”

The Judge noted that aspects of the investigation into Ms Ruffley’s conduct were far from acceptable.

However, she concluded that: “While satisfied that bullying in the workplace might, depending on the particular circumstances, occur in the context of a disciplinary process and regardless of whether or not there was a public aspect to the undermining of the worker’s dignity, the evidence in this case does not support the type of calibrated inappropriateness which distinguishes bullying from other types of work place wrongs.”

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