Case law update: Constructive dismissal – employer’s repudiatory breach need only ‘play a part’ in resignation

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In the case of Wright v North Ayrshire Council, the EAT has provided useful clarification that in order for a constructive dismissal claim to succeed, it is not necessary for the employer’s repudiatory breach to be ‘the’ effective cause of an employee’s resignation, so long as it is ‘an’ effective cause

Background

Mrs Wright was employed by North Ayrshire County Council, (‘the Council’), as a care assistant from 2003 until her resignation in 2010. She subsequently brought a claim for unfair constructive dismissal. She claimed that the Council had fundamentally breached her contract of employment by failing to deal properly with a number of grievances she had raised and by subjecting her to an allegation of theft, which was subsequently found to be wholly unsubstantiated.

At the same time as these issues were occurring at work, Mrs Wright was also experiencing significant personal difficulties. Her mother had died after a long illness and her partner had suffered a serious stroke which had left him in need of care. Attempts had been made to re-organise Mrs Wright’s shift-pattern to help her meet her external responsibilities, but for a variety of reasons these had not been effective. She had been forced to take a significant amount of time off work to deal with her family commitments in respect of which the Council had proved unsympathetic.

Employment tribunal findings

On the facts before it, the employment tribunal concluded that that Mrs Wright had been treated ‘very badly indeed’ by the Council throughout the period in question. The tribunal was in little doubt that the first two requirements for a claim of constructive dismissal (as confirmed in Weston Excavating v Sharp) had been satisfied. There had been a breach of the employment contract by the Council. That breach was fundamental, going to the root of the contact, indicating that the Council was not willing to perform its obligation under the contract. Furthermore, Mrs Wright had not acted so as to affirm the contract notwithstanding the breach.

However, the tribunal ‘reluctantly’ dismissed Mrs Wrights claim on the basis that it found the requirement to provide on-going care for her partner had in fact been the ‘effective cause’ of her decision to resign, rather than the Council’s conduct. Mrs Wright appealed.

EAT Judgment

The EAT found that the tribunal had misinterpreted the meaning of ‘the effective cause’ requirement in relation to constructive dismissal claims. The EAT confirmed that this requirement could be satisfied so long as the employer’s repudiatory breach was ‘an’ effective cause of resignation, it did not need to be the primary, or even the most important cause.

Comment

Notwithstanding any perceived diminution of the role of the employer’s fundamental breach in an employee’s resignation in relation to a claim of constructive dismissal, the extent of the role played will still be relevant, when it comes to calculating compensation.

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