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  • Una Ruffley

    Una Ruffley SNA

    On the 9th May 2014in the case of Ruffley -v- Board of Management St. Anne’s School, Rec No  2011 3819 P, the High Court awarded damages in the sum of €255,276 – comprising €75,000 for psychiatric injuries, €40,000 for psychiatric injury in the future, €93,276.39 for loss of earnings and €47,000 for future loss of earnings to a Special Needs Assistant Una Ruffley in a Bullying and Harassment claim on the grounds that she was subjected to a grossly unfair disciplinary process.
    The Facts
    Ms Ruffley was with a pupil in the sensory room after lunch. The boy fell asleep. As this was an unusual occurrence she rang the class teacher for instructions. The class teacher instructed her to let the boy sleep for 20 minutes before bringing him back to class. The class teacher subsequently contacted the principal Ms Dempsey. The principal attempted to check in on the Special Needs Assistant in the sensory room but found the door locked. Subsequently the  principal began disciplinary procedures because the Special Needs Assistant had locked the door.


    Four Courts, Dublin

    High Court, Dublin

    Ms Ruffley was upset and stated that it was common practice for special needs assistants to lock the door. Regardless of this, he was given procedures to follow in the sensory room and a new programme for a child. She made an error in completing review. The class teacher refused to allow her to change the form. At a further review of her performance she was challenged for her error in competing the form and, incorrectly, for allowing the child to use a swing. The review concerned the programme for the child solely and a letter concerning disciplinary action sent to the special needs assistant was heavy handed and out of context. The principal regarded the incorrect form as an additional disciplinary issue. The principal brought the matter to the board. The plaintiff was not put on notice of the disciplinary procedures. The employer failed to investigate the issue of the practice of other Special Needs Assistants locking the door to the sensory room.


    Following the evidence of the principal the board wanted Ms Ruffley to be instantly dismissed but was persuaded to impose the disciplinary sanction immediately below dismissal and ordered that the plaintiff would have any increment in salary due to her deferred. Mr Justice O`Neill was of the view that the extreme and intemperate reaction of the Board suggested that the account given by the principal was untrue, highly biased, coloured and grossly unfair. Just before the Christmas break the plaintiff was informed that she was going to get a Part 4 Final Warning. She was informed that it would remain on her record for 6 months. In the New Year however she was informed that she was to receive the Part 4 warning and that it was to remain on her record for 18 months. She was given a letter informing her of the warning and incorrectly stating that an investigation was carried out.
    It was clear to the judge that the disciplinary process was grossly unfair to the plaintiff and utterly denied her the benefit of her constitutional right to natural justice and fair procedures. She was summoned to a meeting in which she alleges she was denigrated and humiliated. She sought the advice and support of her union. Her union representative attempted to have the warning letter withdrawn on the grounds that it was common practice to lock the door of the sensory room. Her appeal was rejected. She did her utmost to pursue her grievance through the internal procedures of the defendants but the school wholly failed to respond to her in that context. Efforts by her to have the warning withdrawn through her solicitors were also rejected by the defendants.
    The Plaintiff suffered Personal injuries
    To be entitled to compensation the Plaintiff was required to have suffered an identifiable psychiatric injury. Mr Justice O`Neill was satisfied that the Plaintiff experienced high levels of stress caused by what she perceived as the unfair treatment of her by the defendants, and in particular, Ms. Dempsey.  She was suffering constantly from headaches, insomnia, diarrhoea and high levels of anxiety.
    Was there Bullying and Harrassment?
    ‘Workplace Bullying’ is defined in para 5 of the Industrial Relations Act 1990 (Code of Practice detailing Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace) (Declaration) Order 2002 (S.I. No. 17/2002) as follows:



    Bullying and Harrassment

    Workplace Bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work. An isolated incident of the behaviour described in this definition may be an affront to dignity at work but, as a once off incident, is not considered to be bullying.”

    In Quigley v. Complex Tooling & Moulding Ltd. [2009] 1 I.R. at 349, it was held by the Supreme Court that for conduct to amount to bullying it had to be repeated, inappropriate and undermining of the dignity of the employee at work. Furthermore, in his judgment, Fennelly J. said:

    The plaintiff cannot succeed in his claim unless he also proves that he suffered damage amounting to personal injury as a result of his employer’s breach of duty. Where the personal injury is not of a direct physical kind, it must amount to an identifiable psychiatric injury.”

    Mr Justice O`Neill was satisfied that the plaintiff had demonstrated that the inappropriate behaviour of the defendants was not merely an isolated incident but was persistent over a period of in excess of one year. There can be no doubt but that this persistent, inappropriate behaviour of the defendants wholly undermined the plaintiff’s dignity at work.
    Boards of Management and indeed Boards of Directors need to ensure that they are fully informed of all circumstances surrounding workplace disciplinary and grievance issues. In some instances it may not be sufficient to rely on the report of the Manager. Certainly, in this case it was not sufficient for the Board to so rely. There was a substantial award of damages to this employee from circumstances which initially appear to have been quite trivial. The Board must insist on seeing all documents giving rise to workplace issues. While this may suggest an unfair burden of work for the Board, to neglect such scrutiny could leave the employer subject to a substantial award of compensation.