Workplace relationships do break down, employees can seek revenge and bring vexatious claims in the Employment Tribunal – sadly, it is a fact of life and many conscientious employers end up having to defend these, incurring significant legal costs, senior management time, and facing potential reputational damage. For a small business, an employment tribunal claim brought by an employee can be catastrophic and tremendously stressful.
This is exactly what happened to one of our clients – a small family-run pub. The pub was run by a husband and wife, who had a very disciplined and professional approach to their operations. They employed an HR company, had detailed HR procedures to which they adhered, and generally treated their staff as family members. Despite their best efforts, conflict with one of their chefs could not be resolved. It culminated in the chef walking out in the middle of service, leaving all equipment running, and presenting them with an Employment Tribunal Claim, claiming that he was constructively dismissed for having made a public disclosure. He also alleged disability discrimination.
The pub landlords were perplexed. There was never any indication that the chef suffered a disability. There were no issues raised by him that would qualify as public disclosure, or “whistleblowing”. Their Health & Safety and Hygiene records were in immaculate order. They knew that the said chef had attempted such claims against his previous employers and that he used to boast to staff that he was ”going to arrange for himself a big pay out”. Nevertheless – there it was, the claim was issued and it needed to be dealt with.
Employment Tribunals do have the power to strike out any claims that have “no reasonable prospect of success”. In practice, this rarely happens and there are many hurdles that the defendant needs to overcome to persuade the Tribunal to strike a claim out as “vexatious” – particularly in discrimination and whistleblowing cases. The Tribunal would be guided by the case of Anyanwu v South Bank Students’ Union (2001), where the House of Lords cautioned against striking out discrimination claims, except in the simplest and most obvious cases, as there may be disputed facts that can only be resolved after a full hearing of evidence and representations.
Accordingly and with our associates’ assistance, the clients had to undergo the full rites of passage – from presenting their defence, to the exchange of evidence to the final hearing, which lasted 1 full day. It took 5 months to arrive at the final stage. The opponent refused to mediate. The clients were not inclined to settle – they felt it was a matter of principle. They were proud of their pub management skills and despite the tremendous stress they were determined to show they were a responsible, honourable employer.
Fortunately, the chef’s claim was dismissed in full. We prepared extensive evidence to show that the claim was “cooked” and that it was fundamentally a vexatious act, designed in the hope of settlement out of court.