No Going Back – Rejection of Promotion Offer Not a Failure to Mitigate

soccer players.jpgGibbs -v- Leeds United Football Club concerned the former Assistant Manager of the Club who took his £330,000 constructive dismissal claim to the High Court so as to sidestep the compensation ceiling in the Employment Tribunal.

Having fairly easily established the fundamental breach of contract necessary to win his claim against Leeds, Mr Gibbs then faced two more difficult questions about his compensation. First, how do you provide for mitigation where you know the dismissed employee is going to get a bonus from his new employer, and when, but don’t know how much it will be?  Second, is it a failure to mitigate that the employee declines to accept an offer of improved employment terms from the old employer?

On the first point, the Judge reviewed the options of (i) estimating the bonus figure (but thereby certainly being wrong in one party’s favour of the other) or (ii) delaying the compensation award until the bonus amount were known, but thereby racking up interest charges for Leeds and denying Mr Gibbs receipt of his money. Note that part of the relevant bonus was due to be paid by Mr Gibbs’ new employer, Tottenham Hotspur FC, little more than four months after the High Court’s decision, at a time of low prevailing interest rates and when Mr Gibbs was safely in receipt of a salary from Spurs and so had no immediate need for the money. Nonetheless, this was still felt to be hardship enough all round to leave that option on the bench.

The Judge chose instead to order that:

  • the full amount of the £330,000 award should be paid to Mr Gibbs’ solicitors to be held in an interest-bearing account;

  • the parties should then agree how much of that could be released to Mr Gibbs (i.e. leaving at least enough in the account to cover any likely bonus award from Spurs); and

  • the rest would be offset against that bonus, with the bonus amount going back to Leeds and the balance to Mr Gibbs, plus interest in each case.

All very sensible and the fact that this was a High Court case in no way prevents a similar Order (or agreement between the parties) being made by the Employment Tribunal where there is a need to reflect an uncertain future receipt in the amount of a settlement or compensation award.

On the second point, was it a failure by Mr Gibbs to take reasonable steps to mitigate his losses when he rejected Leeds’ post-resignation offer to stay at Elland Road as Head Coach/Manager? The Judge gave this allegation a fairly short shrift – having found the Club guilty of a repudiatory breach of Mr Gibbs’ contract, it could not fix things so easily.  Though the new role would have been more senior and presumably better paid, the damage caused to Mr Gibbs’ credibility among players and staff by the Club’s earlier treatment of him made it reasonable for him to refuse.  He could have taken the chance that Leeds would change its behaviour towards him, but he was not obliged to do so.  Bear in mind also the recent Employment Appeal Tribunal decision in Cooper Contracting -v- Lindsey which stressed just how high is the hurdle of showing a failure to mitigate, and also Buckland –v- Bournemouth University in 2010. There the Court of Appeal decided much against its own better judgment that once the employer was guilty of a repudiatory breach of contract, it could not “mend” that breach by profuse apologies and other appropriate steps afterwards, even if those measures would have undone all or most of the harm caused in the first place.

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UK Employment Tribunal Awards £3.2m To Woman Called “Crazy Miss Cokehead” By Colleagues

Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP law firm

The woman who was called “Crazy Miss Cokehead” by her manager has been awarded nearly £3.2m by an Employment Tribunal for sexual harassment, reportedly including £44,000 for injury to feelings and a further £15,000 in aggravated damages.

We originally posted a blog on this story in November 2013  Following the liability hearing, the Tribunal found in favour of Svetlana Lokhova who worked for the London branch of the Russian bank Sberbank CIB (UK) Ltd.

The Tribunal found that 19 out of her 22 allegations were not well founded.  However, on the main issues, it was found that Ms Lokhova’s former manager, David Longmuir, had bullied and harassed her on grounds of sex (even in emails), reportedly suggesting that she needed to visit a Nigerian tribesman for sex to “calm her down”.  Other such put-downs included saying that she had only been hired “because of her t***” and poking fun at her perceived privileged background.

In a stinging attack on the Bank, the Tribunal heavily criticised its conduct of the proceedings and said that there had been a “deliberate” attempt to bully her at the liability hearing in relation to an allegation that Ms Lokhova took drugs.  It said, “That allegation is completely without foundation and should never have been put to her in cross examination”.  In a Jeremy Kyle-style twist, Ms Lokhova was so “incensed and appalled” by the allegation that she took a drug test during the hearing, which was negative.

There were a number of other aggravating factors in this case.  Mr Longmuir was not disciplined at all despite the strength of the evidence and carried on working for the Bank for a further year after the bullying, receiving a £168,000 pay-off when he eventually did leave.  While I am sure that this of course had no bearing at all on the Tribunal’s ruling, you might be aware that with the benefit of the tax breaks applicable to severance payments, this is the equivalent of an Employment Judge’s salary for some 20 months.  No reason at all why thatpay-off should have irritated the Tribunal.

The Tribunal further criticised Paolo Zaniboni (who is still the CEO of the London office) who took no action against Mr Longmuir despite the evidence against him and whom the Tribunal also found to be guilty of unlawful victimisation.

The Tribunal’s attitude towards the Bank and its view of the aggravating features of this case is, perhaps, reflected in the reported awards of £44,000 and £15,000 for injury to feelings and aggravated damages respectively, which (if those reports are right) are very high awards indeed compared to previous cases.   The £44,000 figure would represent nearly a 50% uplift on the previously-understood ceiling for such awards.

The Tribunal in this case found that Ms Lokhova, who earned £750,000 a year in salary and bonuses working in Equity Sales, “will never work in financial services again, on the basis of the medical evidence”.  They found that she was suffering from a moderately severe psychiatric illness and had been suffering from such since January 2012.  The bulk of her compensation therefore represented future loss of earnings.

Lessons for employers

An interesting point for employers arising out of this case is how to deal with a case like this to limit the potential financial sanctions.  In this case there were emails containing the abuse and therefore written evidence of it (however, in most cases there will not be).  It should have been obvious to the Bank that it was going to lose in relation to those allegations.  So what can you do by way of mitigation?

1.  In circumstances where internal investigations reveal that it is likely that the allegations of harassment are true, we suggest issuing an immediate apology to the complainant in relation to those allegations (and in extreme circumstances consider paying some money as compensation to the victim).

2.  If an individual brings a claim, give serious consideration also to conceding liability when it is obvious that the allegation is true (however, take legal advice before doing this). Continuing to defend allegations that are indefensible will increase your costs and could lead to the Tribunal finding that the complainant’s injury (either medical and/or to feelings) has been aggravated.  An early apology can improve your prospects of limiting the damage and you will be able to focus on the allegations that are, perhaps, capable of a defence.  A swift apology could limit the complainant’s ability to claim that stress and/or publicity had done fatal damage to his/her career path (especially in a small world like the City of London)  and so prevent such significant loss of earnings claims also.

3.  Further, think carefully what is put to a witness in Tribunal. There was no relevance of Ms Lokhova’s alleged drug habits to the main issues in this case (which was whether or not she had been bullied and harassed).  It is difficult to see how baiting her on the witness stand to try and “prove” that she was a drug addict was going to achieve anything and, in this case, the Bank scored a comprehensive own goal when she conclusively proved that she was not.

4.  Last, give visible consideration to the handling of any employee who is clearly guilty of inappropriate behaviours. It did not take the Tribunal decision to show the Bank that Mr Longmuir’s conduct should be regarded as unacceptable.  If an employer in those circumstances takes the decision not to act against an employee (for example because he/she is a real money-spinner or related to someone in senior management or a major client) then that is a judgment it is entitled to make but only once it has weighed that option against the additional compensation the harassed individual is likely to receive as a result.  A really scorching final warning would now seem to have been a better compromise.

5.  If there is a pay-off, make it as small as possible!