Employment Law Case Update – January 2024

We welcome you back into the land of employment law cases with a few of cases from the back end of 2023. Learn how the ACAS Code plays a crucial role in handling whistleblowing cases, and its implications for compensation uplifts and the limitations of contractual terms. We take a look at how future discrimination claims can be waived when done correctly in a settlement agreement, and evaluate how timings should be considered when looking at constructive dismissal cases, particularly where the claimant has a long employment history and there have been efforts at negotiation.

Whistleblowing: Using the ACAS Code for grievances and compensation uplifts, and whether contractual terms can limit losses

In SPI Spirits (UK) Ltd & Anor v Zabelin [2023] EAT 147, the claimant was the Group Chief Investment Officer for the first respondent company (SPI Spirits). He agreed a 30% pay cut from April to June 2020 because of the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the business. When the first respondent said that the pay cut was being extended to at least 1 September 2020 the claimant raised, in an email of 4 June 2020 and at a meeting on 5 June 2020, various issues including alleging that the pandemic was being used as an excuse to cut pay and that employees were being intimidated. On 8 June 2020 the claimant had a telephone discussion with the second respondent (Shefler), the majority shareholder in the group, who suggested that the claimant should resign if he didn’t agree to proposed changes to bonuses. When the claimant queried why he should resign the second respondent dismissed him. The claimant brought claims including of automatic unfair dismissal and detriment on the grounds of having made whistleblowing protected disclosures (including regarding (a) the claimant’s pay; (b) the claimant’s 2020 bonus; (c) staff welfare; and (d) coronavirus pretence).

The outcome of the case was that the EAT confirmed that a grievance must be in writing for the ACAS Code on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures to apply but, once that has occurred, if new grievances arise they do not each have to be put in writing for the Code to be engaged, unless there is a ‘material change’ in the nature or scope of the complaint or redress sought such that fairness requires it. In addition, the uplift to compensation for an employer’s failure to follow the ACAS Code also applies to awards made against individuals if the relevant individual was responsible for the failure. Finally, contractual terms limiting loss will not be upheld if they produce an outcome which would have the same effect as disapplying or limiting a statutory provision, according to the EAT.

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Equality Act: Unknown future claims can be waived in a settlement agreement if sufficiently particularised

In Bathgate v Technip Singapore PTE [2023] CSIH 48 the Inner House of the Court of Session held that the various protections for the employee built into section 147 of the Equality Act 2010 do not exclude the settlement of future claims so long as the types of claim are clearly identified and the objective meaning of the words used encompassed settlement of the relevant claim. Section 147 of the Equality Act 2010 allows claims for discrimination to be settled using a settlement agreement provided that the settlement agreement relates to the ‘particular complaint’.  Accordingly, a settlement agreement can relate to a future complaint if there is sufficient description of it in the claims waived.

There has been significant uncertainty for some time about whether or not future claims an employee might acquire against their employer but which have not yet arisen could, with the correct wording, be effectively waived as part of a settlement agreement. This decision by the Inner House of the Court of Session (the Scottish equivalent to the Court of Appeal) comes unequivocally to the conclusion that future claims can be waived in a settlement agreement so long as they are sufficiently identified in accordance with the requirements in Hinton v University of East London [2005] EWA Civ 532.

Whilst employers would be wise to consider including future claims in settlement agreements, those representing individuals may try to exclude future claims. However, it should be noted that the decision in this case may not necessarily be followed in England. While decisions from the Inner House of the Court of Session are often considered by employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in England, they are not strictly binding, so caution should be exercised.

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Constructive Dismissal: Was resignation too slow to have been ‘the last straw’?

In Leaney v Loughborough University [2023] EAT 155, the claimant had been a university lecturer and warden of a halls of residence with over 40 years’ service at the University. A student had made a complaint against him in 2018, which he disputed and had led to disciplinary action and in turn a grievance being raised by the claimant. He subsequently resigned as warden in December 2019, and asked several times for a grievance appeal to be held. They told him several times to draw a line under the matter but the claimant persisted. On 29 June 2020, he was told that the university could not look at the issue any further. There followed a period of negotiation between solicitors but due to be back at work that autumn, the claimant was so anxious he was signed off sick by his GP on 10 September 2020, and then resigned with notice on 28 September 2020, thereafter claiming constructive unfair dismissal, alleging a cumulative breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence.

The claimant claimed the notification he had received on 29 June 2020 was the ‘last straw’. The tribunal held that he had affirmed the contract of employment during the three months between 29 June, and his resignation on 28 September 2020 because he should have tendered his resignation prior to this.

The EAT disagreed with the tribunal’s approach and remitted the issue of affirmation for reconsideration, holding:

  • that the tribunal’s focus should not necessarily be on how much time has passed when considering whether affirmation has taken place, but should take into account all the surrounding facts and circumstances should be weighed.
  • where there has been a period of delay then length of service should be taken into account in deciding whether the contract has been affirmed but it is fact sensitive. It is understandable that an employee with long service may take longer to consider their position (without necessarily having affirmed) before removing themselves from a secure job, but the surrounding context is vital and should be applied on an case-by-case basis.
  • a period of negotiation before resignation is relevant. Negotiations could be an employee’s attempt to give the employer the opportunity to ‘put things right’ before resigning and therefore such a delay may not necessarily amount to affirmation of the contract.

His claim was dismissed on the basis that, between the date of the last matter that could potentially be relied upon as a last straw, and the date of resignation, he had affirmed the contract. Having regard to the facts found, and the matters relied upon by the claimant as relevant to the question of whether there had been affirmation, the tribunal erred in its approach to affirmation. The EAT found the tribunal had focused incorrectly on things that did not happen (the Claimant did not delay his resignation because of student exams and did not state that he was working under protest), which, if they had happened, might have pointed away from affirmation. Instead, they should have honed in on what conduct there had been which might have amounted to affirmation. The EAT therefore remitted the matter to the same tribunal for fresh consideration of that issue, in light of the facts found, and, as necessary, the further issues to which the complaint gave rise.

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Further Information:

If you would like any additional information, please contact Anne-Marie Pavitt or Sophie Banks on: hello@dixcartuk.com

The data contained within this document is for general information only. No responsibility can be accepted for inaccuracies. Readers are also advised that the law and practice may change from time to time. This document is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute accounting, legal or tax advice. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.