Law firm entitled to fire employee who “lost it” during meeting

Tribunal: Repudiatory breach of contract

A law firm was entitled to summarily dismiss an employee who lost control during an informal meeting with a manager about his behaviour towards other staff, an employment tribunal has ruled.

The judge said it was reasonable for Mark Satchell, head of the criminal department at Liverpool firm Satchell Moran, to have concerns for his safety and that of other staff members.

James Taylor had been a call-handler in the firm’s first response unit for nearly eight months when he was called into the meeting for an informal chat about his behaviour, the second time this had happened.

Mr Satchell said he hoped to resolve the issues, as he had done three months earlier.

Their accounts of the meeting differed significantly. Mr Taylor said Mr Satchell told him that he was causing problems with other members of staff and sacked him “on the spot”, without revealing who had complained about him or giving Mr Taylor the chance to explain his behaviour.

Mr Taylor said he became “annoyed” as a result, collecting his belongings and leaving the office. That afternoon, he posted abusive messages on Instagram.

Mr Satchell said he explained his dissatisfaction with Mr Taylor’s conduct, having received a number of complaints about “disrespectful behaviour” towards colleagues; those who had complained were upset and tearful, and reported concerns about their safety.

Mr Satchell described Mr Taylor’s response as aggressive and intimidating, and that he demanded the complainants’ names so he could confront them.

He said Mr Taylor was “shouting and growling when responding to me, his face was contorted and his fists were clenched”.

The judge recounted: “Mr Satchell goes on to say that he thinks he was concerned that the claimant might have behaved in a physically aggressive way towards him.

“Mr Satchell says that he was shocked [and] was concerned that the claimant’s rage was at such a level that he could cause damage to Satchell Moran Solicitors’ property, or even assault a member of staff, including Mr Satchell himself.”

He decided to end the meeting and summarily dismiss Mr Taylor on the grounds of gross misconduct. Mr Satchell told him his actions were “tantamount to insubordination, bullying, intimidation and aggression”.

Judge Holt said it was “striking” that, when Mr Taylor cross-examined Mr Satchel, he did not ask questions “which might have amounted to his denying his behaviour or confrontation with Mr Satchell” – or the order of events.

“I find the claimant behaved wholly inappropriately in Mr Satchell’s office on 26 January 2021. I am not remotely satisfied that the claimant’s rude and aggressive behaviour can be excused on the basis of what was going on in his private life at the time.

“I am not satisfied that Mr Satchell was in any way at fault for failing to tease out from the claimant why his reaction was so emotional and marked. I find unreservedly that the claimant lost control of his behaviour and therefore that it was reasonable for Mr Satchell to have concerns for his safety and that of other staff members.

“The situation was aggravated by the fact that Mr Satchell was the claimant’s superior and his reaction was apparently lacking in any respect for Mr Satchell as a member of the senior management team.”

This meant Mr Taylor’s behaviour amounted to a repudiatory breach of contract and so Mr Satchell was “entirely justified” in dismissing him with immediate effect.

The judge said his finding was bolstered by Mr Taylor’s conduct after the meeting, including asking colleagues “Who the fuck finds me intimidating?”, and then later in the day – despite having had time to calm down – posting on Instagram insults about the firm and calling colleagues “weirdos”, “a grass” and “fucking shitbag snitches”.

Judge Holt added: “Since the incident, I am pleased to note that the claimant has found other work. I am very much alive to the fact that many people in work at the moment are dealing with multiple generalised stresses and challenges. I also recall that January 2021 was in the middle of the third Covid-19 lockdown.

“I note with approval that the claimant was very polite and courteous to all involved in the hearing. I therefore hope that the claimant will have had time to reflect now and that he is able to pursue his career without letting non-work-related matters to cloud his judgement and adversely affect his behaviour.”

The judge concluded by refusing the law firm’s application for costs saying that, while the claim was at “the weak end of the spectrum”, it could not be said there were no prospects of success.

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