Employment Law Speed Read – 12/02/18
12th February 2018
This week we look at a sex discrimination claim which found that the Claimant was harassed on the grounds of her sex by her former employer.
Steele v Uniquely Chic Furniture (Cheshire) Limited and Michael Bennett
In Steele v Uniquely Chic Furniture (Cheshire) Limited and Michael Bennett, the Employment Tribunal found that the Claimant was harassed on the grounds of her sex by her former employer and was entitled to aggravated damages for their conduct.
Miss Steele (S) was a part-time employee at Uniquely Chic Furniture (Cheshire) Limited, a small furniture retail business run by Mr Bennett (B) and his wife.
On 10 December 2016, B and his wife went on holiday. During this time concerns were raised with S’s work and it was alleged that S had undermined another employee. B and his wife were informed of this and on their return, B’s wife had a conversation with S where she reprimanded her for her behaviour and her perceived lack of work.
On the night of 22 December 2016, S received the first of three calls from B. During this call, the conversation between his wife and S was discussed, with B reassuring S not to be concerned as he would ‘sort it out’. Shortly after this first call ended, B called S again. B informed S, in a rather explicit manner, that he wanted to have sex with her and proceeded in detail to express his feelings towards S despite her efforts to reject his advances.
Fifteen minutes after the second phone call, B rang S again. S answered the call, thinking B was ringing to apologise. However, this was not the case and B continued to discuss his desire for her and said he was going to come to her house. S told him not to and ended the phone call.
S returned to work the following day (the last day before Christmas) but did not return after the holidays as she had been signed off work for stress by her GP. S resigned on 13 January 2017 and cited the telephone calls she had received from B as the reason for her resignation. S subsequently brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal.
The Tribunal held that the Respondents’ had discriminated against S by harassing her on the grounds of her sex.
The Respondents’ argument that S had fabricated the claims was rejected. The Tribunal found that there was ample evidence to show that the incident had occurred, such as numerous texts between S and her sister, her almost immediate contact with ACAS and the notes made by her GP.
The Tribunal stated that the Respondents’ (who were not legally represented at the Tribunal) position that S’s false claim was part of a malicious plot was “‘inherently implausible, and would require a degree of planning, cunning and determination worthy of the secret service of a foreign power”.
The Claimant was awarded £26,500 in damages. The Tribunal decided that this would be one of the rare cases where an award of aggravated damages would be appropriate due to the Respondents’ subsequent conduct in proceedings. The Tribunal found that the Respondents had conducted the trial in an unnecessary and offensive manner, with the Respondents “mudslinging” and making unsubstantiated and serious allegations about S’s character as well as questioning her integrity. The Respondents had also failed to apologise to S and she was consequently awarded £4,000 in aggravated damages.
This case underlies the importance of ensuring that claims of harassment are taken seriously by employers. Employers should ensure that they investigate all allegations as soon as possible, and ensure that they follow proper grievance procedures.
It is also a reminder to Respondents that they must conduct themselves fairly in proceedings or the Claimant may be awarded aggravated damages if it is held that a Respondent’s conduct has aggravated the Claimant’s injury to feelings.
If you have any questions on the above and how it will affect you, please do not hesitate to get in touch with a member of our employment team.
Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.