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Dismissal a proportionate response for prison officer who failed to disclose a conflict of interest

The Commission has found a decision to dismiss a prison officer was lawful, where the prison officer engaged in misconduct by failing to disclose the true nature of a personal relationship with a prisoner.

Background

The applicant was employed as a prison officer for over ten years. In February 2020, the applicant returned from annual leave and submitted a declaration of conflict of interest to declare an association or relationship with a prisoner (S). In the declaration of conflict of interest, the applicant stated that the nature of the relationship with S was through attendance at a church.

In April 2020, the applicant was suspended, and an investigation commenced into allegations of misconduct, including that that the applicant had failed to declare the true nature of the personal relationship with S; that the applicant had falsely declared the nature of the relationship with S; and that the applicant had provided false, dishonest and/or misleading information in a disciplinary investigation. The investigation found five allegations of misconduct to be substantiated, and the applicant was dismissed.

Contentions

The applicant submitted that he was not guilty of the allegations, that the respondent did not uphold procedural fairness or provide sufficient enquiry. The applicant argued that the allegations were inadequate or not clearly articulated. The applicant conceded that he had interactions with S, including regularly socialising with S; having S attend his home; and paying for S to accompany him on a holiday. The applicant submitted, however, that these close interactions did not change the nature of the relationship.

The respondent submitted that the investigation was fair. The respondent contended that prison officers, in a position of trust, displayed honesty and integrity. The respondent contended that, if the findings of misconduct were upheld, then the dismissal is not disproportionate or unfair.

Findings

The Commission found that the respondent conducted a fair and thorough inquiry, and that it was open to the respondent to find that at least four of the five allegations were substantiated in full. The Commission considered that the applicant had not declared the true nature of his relationship and association with S, and this undermined the necessary trust and confidence the respondent is required to hold in its prison officers.

The Commission, in considering the applicant as a witness, noted that he was evasive and unforthcoming, and at times implausible. The Commission considered that the applicant displayed a lack of integrity, judgment and insight, and that he had not simply made a mistake he had learned from. Given this, the Commission found that counselling could not be an appropriate alternative outcome, and that dismissal was a proportionate response. The Commission found that dismissal was not harsh, oppressive or unjust, and the application was dismissed.

The decision can be read here.

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Commission finds subjective intention of employee a necessary consideration in unfair dismissal claim

The Commission has considered the subjective intention of an employee when considering whether a resignation or dismissal occurred.

Background

The applicant was employed as a massage therapist, paid on a commission basis. On 17 June 2021, a dispute arose between the applicant and the respondent regarding the allocation of customers to the applicant. The applicant began to feel unwell and left the workplace. The applicant stated to the respondent words to the effect that she had no will to work or no will to do any more.

The applicant did not attend work on 18 June 2021 and provided a medical certificate by text message to her employer, certifying her unfit for work for a period of one week. On 19 June 2021, the respondent sent a text message to the applicant regarding the incident that had occurred. The message finalised payments and alluded to consequences if the applicant did not "go quietly".

The applicant initially made a claim to the Fair Work Commission. After receiving legal advice, the applicant made a claim in the Commission, one month out of time.

Contentions

The applicant submitted that the text message received on 19 June 2021 constituted the respondent terminating her employment.

The respondent submitted that when the applicant left on 17 June 2021, he regarded it as her resignation. The respondent did not open the attachment due to fear of an electronic scam.  As he believed the applicant had resigned, he did not think there was any need to open the attachment.

Findings

The Commission considered whether the applicant had been dismissed, or whether the employment had ended on her own will. The Commission considered closely the conduct and words of the applicant on 17 June 2021, and the text messages exchanged in the following days.   

The Commission noted that the applicant had in the past left work early, indicating that she may not have intended to resign. The Commission considered that it would be expected that the applicant would say something in parting to her colleagues if she did intend it to be her last day.  As the applicant was unwell, the Commission also determined that it was likely the applicant’s left the workplace to recover and seek medical treatment. Finally, the Commission noted that the applicant had provided a medical certificate for one week, and had she intended to leave her employment, there would be no reason for her to do so. 

The Commission noted that the text message exchange and the evidence generally, was translated through a Mandarin interpreter. The Commission noted that it was not possible for the Commission to attribute a precise meaning to the Mandarin words the applicant spoke on 17 June 2021 as they only approximate the English words "no will do anymore".  Consideration of subjective intention was necessary, in light of the fact that the Commission was considering the words as interpreted, rather than as they were spoken. The Commission considered that even an objective view of these words would fall short of being a decisive act to end an employment relationship by the applicant. 

The Commission determined that the applicant did not resign, and the employer’s text message on 19 June 2021 signified the end of the employment relationship. As there was no valid reason for the dismissal, the dismissal was harsh, oppressive and unfair. Considering the principles in Malik v Paul Albert, Director General, Department of Education of Western Australia [2004] WASCA 51, the Commission granted the applicant an extension of time. The Commission ordered the respondent pay the applicant compensation for injury in the sum of $1,500 and for loss in the sum of $2,854.16.

The decision can be read here.

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Commission determines no entitlement to balance of a contract where employee’s position was not renewed

The Commission has dismissed an application for payment of the balance of a contract after the applicant’s position was abolished in an operational restructure. The Commission found that the restructure was not in breach of the enterprise bargaining agreement or contract, and that the contract was not prematurely terminated, but rather was not renewed. 

Background

The applicant was employed as the Head of Music at Mandurah Catholic College (the respondent) from 1 January 2014.  The contract for the position offered the applicant an eight-year term, broken into three parts, being:

  • Initial period2 years 1 January 2014 to 31 December 2015
  • Renewal Period3 Years 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2018
  • Renewal Period3 Years 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2021 

The contract outlined that the position would be reviewed during the year prior to the next renewal period commencing. 

In 2018 the respondent commenced a process of restructuring. The applicant was advised of the proposed restructure and the consequential abolition of their position.  The respondent offered the applicant to remain employed as a teacher, retaining his pay rate for 2019, after which the pay rate would reduce to that of a teacher.  Alternatively, the respondent offered a mutual separation arrangement comprised of pay in lieu of notice and an ex-gratia payment. The applicant did not respond to these offers. The applicant instead requested, and was granted, leave without pay from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2019. 

Contentions

The applicant submitted that his contract was prematurely terminated because of the abolition of his position. The applicant submitted that he was employed under a fixed term contract for eight years and sought payment of the balance of the contract. 

The respondent contended that the applicant’s employment was subject to two renewal periods, and subject to a review in the preceding year of each renewal period.  The respondent submitted that the applicant’s contract was not renewed for the third period and was not prematurely terminated.  The respondent submitted that the abolition of the respondent’s position was permitted under the terms of the contract of employment. 

Findings

The Commission considered whether the applicant’s employment contract should be considered a fixed term contract for eight years, or a contract for fixed terms of lesser periods. The Commission determined that the applicant’s contract provided for three discrete periods which began again or were made anew.  The Commission determined that, due to the applicant taking leave without pay, the second period was extended by agreement by one year.  A review was required to renew that contract beyond that time, and, as a review did not occur, the contract was not renewed. 

The Commission also considered whether the terms of the EBA were incorporated into the terms of the contract employment, and if so, whether the EBA permitted the respondent to abolish the applicant’s position. The Commission found that the terms of the EBA were incorporated into the contract, and that the EBA outlined the obligations of the respondent in a restructuring. The Commission found that the respondent had fulfilled its obligations under the EBA and had offered the applicant two alternative proposals. As the applicant had not accepted the proposals and instead requested leave without pay, the respondent was not required to pay the applicant. 

The decision can be read here.

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Employee's dismissal after 45 years of service overturned and finding of breach of discipline quashed

The Public Service Appeal Board (Board) has upheld an appeal, finding that the employee did not commit a breach of discipline or engage in misconduct by not attending one medical appointment, or not signing a consent form for a medical appointment.

Background

The employee worked as an Aboriginal Education Officer/Eco Education Officer - Aboriginal Cultural Program.

The employee was dismissed from his employment on 6 January 2020 for two misconduct findings:

  • The employee was directed to attend a medical appointment with a Neurologist, as a fitness for work assessment on 4 July 2019 and failed to attend that appointment.
  • The employee was to attend a medical appointment, as a fitness for work assessment, on 8 August 2019, and while he attended that appointment, he did not participate in the medical assessment because he refused to sign the consent form.

The Board's findings

The Board found that the requirement for the employee to be assessed by the Neurologist was unreasonable. The Board found that the prior medical reports did not identify a need for assessment by a neurologist. From a psychiatric point of view, the medical evidence all pointed to the employee being fit for work "presently". It further found that any direction to attend for assessment by a Neurologist was unnecessarily invasive and would have not meet the requirement for sensitivity and respect for privacy identified in Blackadder v Ramsay Butchering Services Pty Ltd [2002] FCA 603; (2002) 118 FCR 395.

The Board found that the employee had good reasons to dispute the reasonableness of the direction to attend the first appointment and his failure to attend that appointment did not constitute misconduct and cannot be grounds for dismissal.

In relation to the failure to sign a form of consent to medical procedures, the Board again found the failure was not misconduct in circumstances where the employer's requirement for the employee to be assessed by a neurologist was unreasonable. The Board also noted that even if the direction to attend the appointment had been reasonable, there was insufficient evidence as to the need for the consent form for the assessment to proceed, and the reasons for the consent form not being completed, to conclude the employee's conduct was misconduct.

Conclusion

While the Board concluded that the findings of misconduct should be quashed, it did not consider that reinstatement was appropriate in light of the employee's medical history, the medical evidence as to his work restrictions, his receipt of workers' compensation incapacity payments and the uncertainty as to whether he was fit to perform the inherent requirements of his position. The Board was additionally concerned that the employee's answers to questions put to him at hearing indicated he had not engaged fully frankly or candidly in his employer's attempts to manage his return to work. The Board instead varied the period of notice of termination.

The decision can be read here.

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