Tribunal finds law firm unfairly dismissed paralegal

Tribunal: Race allegations dismissed

A law firm dismissed a paralegal because he was close to his supervisor, with whom it was in dispute, rather than due to the allegations levied against him, an employment tribunal has ruled.

But though personal injury firm B-T2 Solicitors unfairly dismissed Mr S Seyhan, it was justified in dismissing the supervisor, Meral Erbil.

It was also cleared of racially discrimination against the pair, who were both of Turkish origin.

Employment Judge Burgher in East London said there was no evidence against Mr Seyhan (‘C2’ in the ruling) that supported the allegations against him, which he denied.

“We conclude that the respondent did not undertake a reasonable investigation into what C2 was saying to rebut the allegations against him and what he actually did to found the allegations of misconduct he faced.

“It seemed that he was dismissed because of the evident close working relationship with C1 [Ms Erbil] and that as such he must have known about C1’s misconduct. In these circumstances we conclude that C2 was unfairly dismissed by the respondent.”

Ms Erbil started working for B-T2 in 2015 as a paralegal at what was then its office in south London. In 2016, at her suggestion, the firm opened an office in Green Lanes in North London – the home of the capital’s Turkish community – to tap into Turkish clients. The office was headed by Ms Erbil and was called Erbiller Solicitors as a separate trading name.

Ms Erbil contends there was a concluded oral agreement with B-T2’s directors that she would be a 50% owner with her sister of the Erbiller business. This dispute is the subject of separate county court proceedings.

The office opened around June 2016 and at the same time B-T2 closed the south London office and opened one in Walton on Thames, where it still is.

Two paralegals relocated to Green Lanes, meaning the office handled work for both Erbiller and B-T2.

“The Green Lanes office apparently thrived and was not subject to any criticism in regarding its operations prior to July 2018,” the tribunal noted. “There was no indication that it was operating other than successfully.”

Mr Seyhan was recruited in November 2016; he had worked with Ms Ebril before and they were related.

In July 2018, however, the relationship between Ms Ebril and B-T2’s directors fractured after a dispute over the profitability of the Erbiller part of the business. This is also part of the county court case, which Ms Ebril launched in October 2018.

In February 2019, B-T2 told her to stop taking on new work for the Erbiller business as it wanted to close the office and transfer existing files elsewhere. The following month, Ms Ebril and Mr Seyhan were given notice of termination for 31 May by reason of redundancy.

In April, Ms Ebril introduced B-T2 to HGA Legal Services, which willing to take on the Erbiller caseload, and this happened on 21 April. No staff moved over with them.

However, a few days before, the B-T2 directors discovered that nearly £15,000 of fees in cheques had not been passed on and that Ms Ebril had been writing to clients about transferring files, having been expressly told not to do so.

She and Mr Seyhan were suspended and Ms Ebril was later accused of contacting third-party insurers and medical agencies on behalf of HGA Solicitors during this suspension. In May 2019, both paralegals were dismissed for gross misconduct.

The tribunal rejected the claimants’ assertions that the dismissals were because of Ms Ebril’s ongoing dispute with B-T2’s director.

“This dispute was ongoing since August 2018, there had been an intervening redundancy situation followed by discovery of matters alleged to amount to gross misconduct,” it said.

“On the information available to the respondent at the time of the dismissal, we conclude that it did form a genuine belief that C1 was guilty of gross misconduct.

“The failure to forward on cheques by C1, which had not happened previously, combined with the desire to transfer files relating to those cheques to another firm without authorisation entitled them to hold that belief.”

The tribunal found that the dismissal of Ms Ebril “for matters that related to dishonesty and failing to follow management instructions, as far as the respondent was reasonably concerned, cannot be said to be outside the band of reasonable responses open to a reasonable employer”. Many of the same accusations had been levied against Mr Seyhan.

Judge Burgher added that the redundancy process was fair.

He rejected the claims that the pair were the only staff not invited to the 2018 Christmas party because they were Turkish. It was, he said, because of the ongoing litigation and a grievance that Ms Ebril had unsuccessfully made against one of the directors.

“The tribunal accept that it would have been awkward to have had festivities with C1 in these circumstances. C2 was not invited because of the perceived close association and working relationship with C1… This was not on grounds of race.”

Two other race-related allegations brought by Ms Ebril were dismissed, as was a complaint from Mr Sayhan about one of the directors describing him as “a puppy dog”.

This referred to his relationship with Ms Ebril. “Whilst this was an offensive comment, we do not conclude that it was related to race or on grounds of race,” Judge Burgher ruled.

The tribunal concluded that Mr Sayhan was entitled to a basic award plus an award of four weeks’ pay because B-T2 had not given him a written contract of employment.

“Whilst the respondent is a small employer, it is an established solicitors’ firm and should have complied with the minimum mandatory employment provisions.”

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