Case Study: High Court’s Ruling on Workplace Bullying Overturned

Last updated: August 25th, 2023

The case of Ruffley -v- The Board of Management St Anne’s School [2014] IEHC 235 is the first extended deliberation of the law in relation to bullying in the workplace. The claimant was awarded a substantial €255,276 in compensation after it was found that they had been subjected to workplace bullying. The respondent appealed the finding to the Court of Appeal where the award was overturned. The matter was appealed further to the Supreme Court who similarly determined that Ruffley had not been subjected to workplace bullying.

Background to the Case

The complainant was employed since 1999 as a Special Needs Assistant at St Anne’s School in Kildare. The school catered exclusively for children with intellectual disabilities. There was a sensory room In the school, used to develop the sensory perception of pupils by exposing them to a variety of experiences such as music, vibration, movement, light and colour. In September 2009, a child with ADHD fell asleep in the sensory room. The complainant locked the door of the room with the child inside and left to seek instruction from a supervisor. On her return, she locked the door again. When a senior manager arrived and tried to enter the room, they found the door to be locked, which from the company’s perspective was inappropriate behaviour and raised a child protection issue.

The matter was sent to the school’s board of management. Prior to being asked to attend a disciplinary meeting, Ms. Ruffley was notified that the meeting was in relation to locking the door, but no further information was given. In the meeting, Ruffley accepted she had locked the door and said her reason for locking the door was that it was done to prevent other students from entering the room and also to prevent children, who she described as “runners”, from running out of the room. Ruffley alleged that other employees also lock the door and that this was a standard practice for a number of years. Ruffley highlighted that there was no written policy stating employees were prohibited from locking the door. Following the process, Ruffley was issued with a final written warning. A year after receiving the formal sanction, Ruffley went on sick leave, citing stress, and raised a bullying allegation in relation to her treatment throughout the process.

Ruffley submitted a complaint to the High Court on the basis that the whole process had caused her such psychological damage that it breached her Constitutional right to work and have reputation protected. Due to the damage caused to her by the school management’s behaviour, she may never get work again, certainly not in the same area. The claim was also made on the basis that she had a contractual right to be subject to reasonable behaviour.

High Court Decision

The High Court disagreed with the school’s actions, stating the disciplinary process followed was “severe, unmerited and in breach of natural justice and fair procedure”.

The claimant alleged she was bullied and harassed from the date of the Sensory Room incident on 14th September 2009 until the date that she ceased work on 27th September 2010. The school excessively monitored the complainant’s work after the warning was issued.

The Judge said the complainant “demonstrated to my satisfaction that the inappropriate behaviour of the defendants was not merely an isolated incident, but was persistent over a period of in excess of a year. There can be no doubt that this persistent, inappropriate behaviour of the defendants wholly undermined the plaintiff’s dignity at work”.

The complainant was awarded a total of €244,276 in compensation for psychological and reputational damage. The school appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal concluded that the actions of the employer during the disciplinary process did not amount to bullying and made the following comments in relation to the process that was applied;

  • Perhaps arising from a misunderstanding, but honestly pursued in the interest of the children;
  • There was nothing in the process of investigation that constituted a sustained campaign maliciously pursued in order to intimidate or humiliate or denigrate the plaintiff;
  • The person who would have been most alert as to bullying was Mr. Mullen, the plaintiff’s trade union representative, who did not suggest that this was such a case;
  • At worst, this was a botched disciplinary process and not a case of repeated offensive behaviour intended to destroy the plaintiff’s dignity at work;
  • The definition of bullying has to be stretched beyond breaking point to fit this case.”

Supreme Court

The matter was then appealed to the Supreme Court, who agreed with the Court of Appeal and found that Ruffley had not satisfied the definition and test of bullying in the workplace.

Learning Points

  1. The Supreme Court stated that whether or not day-to-day instruction and supervision amounts to bullying is an objective test;
  • “The fact that a person may be employed by another and may be required to accept instructions, discipline and control during the working day, does not mean that they are to be treated either by the employer, or fellow workers, in a way which undermines their essential dignity as a human person. This is, in my view, a central feature of the test.”
  • “Correction and instruction are necessary in the functioning of any workplace and these are required to avoid accidents and to ensure that productive work is engaged in. It may be necessary to point to faults”
  1. The Court also stated bullying must impact an employee at a human level;
  • “Inappropriate behaviour does not necessarily need to be unlawful, erroneous or a procedure liable to be quashed or otherwise wrong in law: it is instead behaviour which is inappropriate at a human level. The test looks to the question of propriety in human relations, rather than legality. Again, the more familiar examples of bullying illustrate this. Purposely undermining an individual, targeting them for special negative treatment, the manipulation of their reputation, social exclusion or isolation, intimidation, aggressive or obscene behaviour, jokes which are obviously offensive to one person, intrusion by pestering, spying and stalking—these examples all share the feature that they are unacceptable at the level of human interaction. That, in turn, is consistent with the concept of human dignity being protected.”
  1. An unfair procedure does not alone amount to bullying, it is, however, possible that an unfair disciplinary process would amount to bullying if the process was “instituted maliciously and as part of a campaign to victimise an individual”. There is not a direct connection between a breach of procedure and bullying. It is, however, important the employee is provided with the right to fair procedure and natural justice. Employees should be formally invited to disciplinary hearings, given the right to representation, the allegations should be clearly set out in writing and all supporting documentation provided in advance of the hearing.

If you have any questions in relation to this case or have any queries in relation to workplace bullying please contact our advice line on 01 886 0350.

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