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Lewd emails sufficient to repudiate contract
In Williams v Leeds United Football Club the High Court has held that an employer was right to summarily dismiss an employee when it discovered that, 5 years before, he had forwarded a pornographic email to a junior colleague and two external contacts. The employee was already serving 12 months notice of redundancy but when the employer discovered these emails, the High Court considered it was entitled to treat this conduct as a repudiation of the contract of employment despite the fact it was looking for a reason to justify immediate dismissal.
The Claimant was employed by Leeds United as a technical director on 12 months notice. When the club began a restructuring exercise it identified his post as being redundant. Concurrently it started to investigate a number of senior managers, including the Claimant, to see if it could identify evidence to justify dismissing them on grounds of gross misconduct, therefore avoiding the lengthy notice pay if they were made redundant. They went so far as to instruct a firm of forensic investigators to trawl through the email system – and came up with the pornographic email being sent by the Claimant to a junior colleague 5 years previously.
The time frames are interesting. On the 22nd July 2013 the MD was instructed to stop paying the Claimant even though this would be in breach of contract. The following day the Claimant was given written notice of the termination of his employment by reason of redundancy; and the day after that the forensic investigators reported the email containing lewd images. The football club required him to attend a disciplinary hearing on the 29th July but he did not attend and was summarily dismissed on the 30th July.
His claim before the High Court of wrongful dismissal as being entitled to his notice period was dismissed by the High Court. It held that the Claimant’s conduct was sufficiently serious to justify summarily dismissal as the email has been forwarded to a junior colleague as well as a former colleague. These actions ran the risk of the club being sued for sexual harassment.
This legal update is provided for general information purposes only and should not be applied to specific circumstances without prior consultation with us.
For further details on any of the issues covered in this update please contact Gemma Ospedale, Partner in Employment on 020 7583 2222.
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