Tribunal rejects claims from ‘partner’ who sued as employee

Employment: Solicitor only won breach of contract claim

A former salaried partner, permitted by an employment tribunal earlier this year to sue her law firm as an employee, has lost all but one of her claims.

Rejecting Ella Millet’s claims for discrimination and constructive dismissal, Employment Judge Victoria Butler upheld only a claim for breach of contract relating to her notice period and awarded £6,500 in damages.

Employment Judge Blackwell ruled in June that Ms Millett, while treated by former Nottingham firm Sheltons in some ways as a partner between 2013 and 2016, had the status of an employee.

The tribunal heard that Ms Millett began working as a solicitor in the private client department of Sheltons in February 2012. Early in 2013 she approached the man “regarded as the senior partner” for a promotion.

The firm had recently become an LLP and the three equity partners were “nearing the end of their careers and were looking for exit strategies”.

Describing the structure of the partnership as “somewhat informal”, the senior partner agreed that Ms Millett and a colleague would become salaried partners. From then on Ms Millett took drawings and was “held out as a partner to the outside world”.

Ms Millett drafted an updated partnership agreement but it was never adopted and the judge said that “unfortunately that document can no longer be found”.

Judge Blackwell said there was a conflict of evidence as to whether Miss Millett and the other salaried partner were “effectively equal” with the equity partners in terms of the management and running of the partnership.

“I do not believe there is a black and white answer,” the judge said. The tribunal accepted evidence from a former equity partner that Ms Millett was “entirely responsible for her own area of expertise, i.e. will drafting, and that she took an active hand in the management of the firm”.

The judge added: “It is clear that Miss Millett had at all times her eyes on the future and her career and was thus actively engaged in matters that would affect the future of the partnership and thus her own future.”

However, the tribunal accepted Ms Millett’s evidence that she was not involved in discussions with the partnership’s accountants save in respect of her personal returns.

Judge Blackwell said it appeared to be the intention of two of the three equity partners that Miss Millett should have a “guaranteed salary”.

Sheltons was bought by Edward Hands & Lewis (EHL) Solicitors in October 2016 and Ms Millett became a senior associate in the combined firm. The tribunal ruled that throughout her time at Sheltons, Ms Millett was an employee.

Noting that neither Ms Millett nor the three equity partners at Sheltons took legal advice about the changes to the partnership, Judge Blackwell said: “I am reminded of the old adage that a solicitor who acts for himself has a fool for a client.”

The judge ruled that for the six years from 2012 to 2018, Ms Millett was an employee and entitled to pursue a claim for constructive dismissal. He rejected a strike-out application from EHL.

Ruling in August on Ms Millett’s constructive dismissal and discrimination claims as an employee against EHL as successor practice to Sheltons, Judge Butler dismissed nine out of ten of them.

The nine claims rejected as “not well-founded” were constructive and automatic unfair dismissal, victimisation, unlawful deduction from wages in terms of holiday pay and contractual sick pay, along with Ms Millett’s claim that she suffered “detriment for family reasons”.

Ms Millett also claimed direct and indirect disability discrimination, sex discrimination and maternity and pregnancy discrimination. These too were all dismissed.

Only the claim for breach of contract on notice pay succeeded. There was no order for costs.

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