Tribunal rejects solicitor’s “attempts at character assassination”

Employment: Solicitor was in breach of contract

A solicitor who resigned without notice was in breach of contract, an employment tribunal has ruled after finding that it was not a case of constructive dismissal.

The tribunal in Manchester rejected “irrelevant allegations” from Lesley Owens against Cheshire conveyancers Roberts Solicitors, which it said were “hard to see as anything other than attempts at character assassination”.

Employment Judge Holmes said the claimant’s “evidence and much of her case” were “very hard to follow and comprehend”.

Judge Holmes said: “She has written somewhat rambling and hard-to-follow documents with wide-ranging comments, and criticisms of the respondent, which has hindered the tribunal in its task of trying to keep to the issues in the claims, and to consider the legal and factual bases for them.”

The judge said “large parts” of the claimant’s documents/statement were comprised of “irrelevant allegations” against managing director Wayne Roberts relating to “wholly extraneous matters… which it is hard to see as anything other than attempts at character assassination”.

Ms Owens started work in January 2017, and was entitled to a discretionary bonus, which was “orally agreed”. She resigned at the end of July 2018.

Judge Holmes said the starting points for Ms Owens’ claims of constructive dismissal were that Roberts Solicitors, based in Macclesfield and trading as Roberts Crossley, was guilty of a fundamental breach of contract entitling the solicitor to resign.

The judge said Ms Owens had not been clear about the conduct which led to the alleged breach, but it included a combination of “excessive workload, excessive hours, failure to engage in constructive discussion to help improve the firm’s commercial property business”, along with an unfair bonus scheme and instructions to participate in conduct which she believed might breach the SRA Code of Conduct, and potentially being disciplined for refusing to do so

Mr Roberts instructed all staff at the firm in June 2018 that he was launching an online estate agency, GoMoveMe, and they should attach a ‘banner’ advertising it to the foot of all emails.

Judge Holmes said Ms Owens “had reservations as to whether the association between the estate agency and the firm of solicitors was an appropriate one” and considered that it might breach the code of conduct.

She told Mr Roberts that she did not want to be involved, nor would she be taking “any telephone calls” from Conveyancing Warehouse, another business run by Mr Roberts.

Mr Roberts warned her that this would be dealt with at a disciplinary hearing, but one never took place.

Ms Owens had already been interviewed by another firm of solicitors in Macclesfield, and secured a job offer in July 2018.

Judge Holmes said tribunal was satisfied that the solicitor was “doubtless unhappy, and found aspects of the respondent’s remuneration package, workload and unwillingness to expand upon the commercial property side, unsatisfactory features of her employment”.

He went on: “It is not surprising therefore that by June 2018 she had decided to move on.

“The tribunal agrees with the respondent’s submission that she timed her resignation so as to ensure that she received as much bonus as possible, and when she had secured alternative employment before her resignation.

“The claimant was not constructively, and therefore not wrongfully, dismissed.”

Judge Holmes dismissed all her other claims, including unlawful deduction of wages and claims under the Working Time Regulations 1988.

The judge said it followed that, in not giving the required nine weeks’ notice, Ms Owens was in breach of contract.

The counterclaim for nearly £22,000 was put on the basis of the loss of fee income as a consequence of the claimant’s sudden departure from the business.

However, the tribunal found that Mr Roberts did not establish a causal link between any losses sustained and the breach.

“Whilst Wayne Roberts has asserted that the claimant’s departure resulted in the remaining fee-earners becoming overstretched, which ‘reduced their ability to take on new files’, no evidence has been produced to show this decline in new instructions following the claimant’s departure.

“All the respondent has been able to demonstrate therefore has been a reduction is fee income over the last five months of 2018. There may be many reasons for that, other than the claimant’s departure.”

The tribunal found that, at best, the losses which flowed from the breach were “no more than speculative”, and it could not award them on that basis. Instead, it awarded just £1 in nominal damages.

Mr Roberts told Legal Futures: “We are delighted by the tribunal’s decision to dismiss every single one of the multitude of claims brought against this firm by Lesley Owens.

“The ease of which claims such as these can be made against employers in unfortunate. We are, however, pleased that the decisions and names of individuals making such claims are published and a matter of public record.”

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