A recent appeal case (May 2020) has looked at whether a claim for constructive dismissal can succeed when what could be perceived as a fairly minor incident prompting resignation is in fact the final straw that pushed the employee to take action.
In the case of Williams v Governing Body of Alderman Davies Church in Wales Primary School, the EAT ruled that a relatively innocuous act could lead to a successful constructive dismissal claim if there had been prior fundamental breaches by the employer.
Mr Williams was a primary school teacher who suffered from a stress related mental disability. He was suspended in April 2015 and was informed that this was due to a child protection matter. The suspension was lifted in July 2015, but he was not allowed to return to teaching duties. Mr Williams was not informed of the allegation against him, that he manhandled a child, until October 2015. No further information was provided to him.
Mr Williams was then found to have downloaded documents from the school system and shared them with a colleague. This was discovered in early 2016 and led to a further suspension and investigation. The original disciplinary procedure was ongoing.
In May 2016 Mr Williams requested further details of the allegation, which was denied. He wrote a letter of resignation in June 2016, stating that the reason for his resignation was that the colleague with whom he had shared documents had been told not to contact him while the investigation was underway.
An earlier Employment Tribunal hearing had found that the Claimant was not unfairly or constructively dismissed. However, the EAT upheld Mr Williams’ appeal and said that the tribunal had been wrong to conclude that his constructive dismissal claim had to fail because the last straw was, in itself, innocuous and not unreasonable. For a case to succeed, the employee must not have waived the employer’s earlier breach and must have resigned in response to that earlier breach, at least partially.
Where there has been an earlier fundamental breach of contract, an employee may refer back to this – at least in part – if a future, less significant incident prompts them to resign. Employers should be aware that even a seemingly minor act can therefore result in a successful constructive dismissal claim by reinvigorating a past incident of wrongdoing. Care should be taken wherever there has been a dispute with an employee, even if action was not taken by the employee at the time.
Read the full judgement here.