Teacher Barred from Making Further Complaints
We live in an era when certain political leaders refuse to accept that they have lost elections or lost the support of their parties. It is an era when some refuse to accept that a pandemic is or was sweeping the globe despite the widespread evidence of deaths and serious illness. It is an era when some even refuse to accept that the holocaust or the moon landing happened. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that there are, from time to time, individuals who simply refuse to accept that they have lost a legal case and who pursue one pointless, frivolous or vexatious claim after another. Here our Adrian Twomey looks at the recent decision of the High Court in the case of Morgan v The Labour Court,  IEHC 361, in which a teacher pursued almost unending claims against her employer over a period of thirteen years.
Deirdre Morgan was initially employed by County Wicklow VEC as a post-primary art teacher in September 2000. County Wicklow VEC was dissolved in 2013 and replaced by Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board (KWETB). KWETB then became Ms Morgan's employer.
In March 2009, she made a complaint against her employer to the Equality Tribunal under the Employment Equality Acts, alleging that she had been the victim of discrimination based on her gender.
In August 2010, while the equality case was still pending, Ms Morgan also complained internally that a male student in one of her classes had sexually harassed her. It appears that she had objected to the student in question being admitted into her class in the first instance. Ms Morgan later withdrew her complaint against the student but a barrister, who investigated the matter, concluded that the complaint was, on the balance of probability, originally made to victimise the student and that it was vexatious and malicious.
In December 2010, the teacher made a complaint to the Labour Relations Commission (effectively the predecessor of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC)) under the Protection for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998. In January 2011 she was informed that the VEC intended to commence disciplinary action against her. In March of that year she referred a complaint of penalisation to the LRC under the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. In September 2011 she filed another complaint under the Employment Equality Acts with the Equality Tribunal.
Ms Morgan's complaints to the LRC were dismissed by a Rights Commissioner in September 2011. She appealed that decision to the Labour Court. That appeal would eventually be heard in or around 2020. In March 2012, however, her complaints under the Employment Equality Acts were largely dismissed by the Equality Tribunal, although she was awarded €500 for one apparent breach of the legislation. The Equality Officer noted at the time that:
"the complainant has made serious accusations against almost every person involved in the matters before the Tribunal, often with little or no evidence to support these accusations, and without regard to the consequences of doing so... The complainant is undoubtedly litigious .... I have every sympathy for the [employer] with respect to the work, effort and difficult dealings that it has had to put in to addressing this matter".
The employer's disciplinary process appears to have been time-consuming and fiercely contested, which is unsurprising given the antiquated and convoluted process required to be followed to dismiss VEC teachers. The process resulted in her suspension from duties in July 2013. There followed an inquiry under the Vocational Education Act 1930 as to Ms Morgan's fitness to hold office. That effectively led to her dismissal or removal from office by the Minister for Education in June 2015; more than four years after the disciplinary process began.
Ms Morgan then made a complaint to the WRC against the Minister, alleging that her removal from office constituted discrimination on the ground of disability (a similar complaint was filed against KWETB). That complaint was dismissed by an Adjudication Officer in 2017. She appealed to the Labour Court who dismissed her appeal in 2018.
Ms Morgan unsuccessfully pursued issues arising from the disciplinary process separately via judicial review proceedings in the High Court. Meanwhile, her 2011 appeal to the Labour Court was eventually also dismissed by that body in 2020. She appealed that decision to the High Court too, but her appeal was dismissed by Mr. Justice Ferriter in March 2022.
It appears that the series of claims referred to above were not the only claims pursued by Ms Morgan, who must inevitably have invested enormous time and energy in pursuing claims against her employer and the Minister. Given that she was legally represented by solicitors and counsel at certain stages, one can only speculate that the entire process also cost her a considerable amount of money. It is even more certain that what appears to have been a campaign of litigation against the VEC, the ETB and the Minister resulted in a significant cost to the public purse and the taxpayer.
Ms Morgan's litigation may now, however, at last be at an end. In June of this year (2022), Mr. Justice Ferriter made what is known as an "Isaac Wunder order" (named after such an order granted in a case in the 1960s) restraining Ms Morgan from instituting any further proceedings against the Minister for Education and Skills or KWETB in any court or other forum, including the WRC, relating to her employment, the termination of same or her pension. He went on to strike out all complaints to the WRC, Labour Court, Circuit Court and High Court that were still pending. The judge quoted the following extract from Kelly's book on The Irish Constitution:
“The right to litigate must be read subject to the judicial power to strike out an action so as to prevent an abuse of the judicial process. If it is clear that the plaintiff's claim must fail or that he can derive no tangible benefit from the litigation, a court has an inherent jurisdiction to stay the action (in addition to a similar jurisdiction conferred by the Rules of the Superior Courts relating to frivolous or vexatious proceedings), though this jurisdiction must be exercised sparingly and only in clear cases... Moreover any court may restrain a person from instituting legal proceedings without first obtaining the consent of the court where this is necessary in order to prevent the abuse of court processes or the pursuit of vexatious litigation, a so-called ‘Isaac Wunder’ order”.
In what was a resounding (and presumably final) victory for the Minister and the ETB, the judge went on to state that:
"In deciding to exercise the Court’s inherent jurisdiction in this way, I am relying on the fact that the continued maintenance of these proceedings would clearly constitute an abuse of process and that to allow the proceedings to continue to what could only be lawfully one conclusion before the WRC would be to impose further unwarranted time and cost and on the Minister and the Board, given the number of remaining unresolved complaints and given the appellant’s proven propensity to drag such proceedings out. The appellant can have no valid complaint by the Court making such strike out orders now as the continued prosecution of these complaints would clearly amount to an abuse of process. The Board and the Minister (and therefore the public purse) would benefit from the making of such orders now by being spared further expenditure of time and human and financial resources. The WRC’s processes will not be undermined in any way by the Court adopting that course of action and rather its resources can be more appropriately deployed to deal with cases which do not involve an abuse of process."
The Morgan case highlights the fact that litigation can sometimes be used and abused by employees to hound employers with whom they are unhappy. Employers requiring advice or representation in such matters can contact our Adrian Twomey.