This week we look at a recent Labour Court case in which the employee claimed to have been constructively dismissed. Our Adrian Twomey highlights the key points to note in the case of Shanahan v Go-Ahead Transport Services (Ireland) Limited, UDD2321.
The Complainant, Mr. Iain Shanahan, was a bus driver who was employed by the company from 1 July 2019 to 12 May 2021. He was paid approximately €730 per week. He claimed that in January 2021, at a time when he was on a break, he was contacted by a manager who told him that there had been complaints received about him. He was told that he was being given an informal warning.
Mr. Shanahan told the Labour Court that he wanted a proper investigation of the complaints and that he contacted a more senior manager about the issue. He was told that the earlier conversation had merely been an "informal chat". The senior manager apologised to Mr. Shanahan about the interruption of his break.
During that same month, Mr. Shanahan believed that he was rostered for a disproportionate number of evening shifts. He contended that he was unsuccessful in having this issue addressed and resolved to his satisfaction. He also pointed to a number of other minor issues and irritants in relation to rostering, annual leave and his hours of work that arose over the period between January and April of 2021.
Mr. Hanrahan went out sick in early April 2021. He was certified by his GP as suffering from work-related stress. His initial medical certificate covered the period up to 21 April 2021. His manager contacted him on 20 April regarding his return to work. Mr. Shanahan alleged - rightly or wrongly - that this was inappropriate in light of the nature of his illness.
Mr. Shanahan submitted a grievance in relation to all of these matters and also complained about his perceived lack of career progression. The company acknowledged receipt of his grievance. He went on, however, to submit his resignation on 12 May 2021 and filed complaints under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 (as amended) and the Industrial Relations Act 1969 (as amended) with the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) on 21 July of that year.
At the WRC hearing on 22 June 2022, the company argued that it had acknowledged receipt of the Complainant's grievance and informed him that the Human Resources Department would meet with him about it on his return to work after sick leave. However, Mr. Shanahan never returned from sick leave and resigned instead. Nonetheless, the company did respond to each of the points raised by the employee in his grievance. It contended that it had not been afforded any opportunity to address and resolve the grievance before Mr. Shanahan resigned.
At the WRC, Adjudication Officer Jim Dolan concluded that it was not reasonable of the Complainant to resign without having given his employer an opportunity to address his grievances. On that basis, he dismissed the complaint (ADJ-00034340). Mr. Shanahan appealed that decision to the Labour Court.
Having heard the appeal on 7 June 2023, the Labour Court issued a decision on 27 June. Upholding the WRC decision, the Court noted that it was not in dispute that the Complainant resigned before utilising the full internal procedures available to him to address his grievances. Having referred to previous decisions on the point, the Court went on to state that:
"In the instant case, the Respondent has a grievance procedure. The Complainant was aware of the procedure and lodged a complaint under the procedure. However, he resigned before affording the Respondent the opportunity to address his grievance. The Court considers that it was perfectly reasonable for the Respondent to advise the Complainant that they would contact him regarding his complaint when he was well again, not least because part of the complaint related to contact with him by the Respondent while he was on sick leave.
No evidence has been put to the Court that there was any reason why the Complainant might have concluded that the Respondent lacked the ability to address his grievances.... No argument was put to the Court about any alleged inadequacy of the Respondent’s procedures for dealing with such complaints and, on the face of it, the Respondent’s procedures seem to be fairly standard. Likewise, there is nothing in the earlier responses of the Respondent to individual complaints to suggest that the Complainant could have a reasonable basis for a lack of faith in his employer’s willingness to accept and to correct mistakes made by them....
The Complainant has suggested that he chose not to process his grievance but, rather, to resign due to work-related stress. It is, of course, unfortunate that an employee should become ill due to events at work but it is still incumbent on any such employee to afford his/her employer the opportunity to address concerns before resigning from employment. To do otherwise, in the view of the Court, falls outside a range of reasonable responses and the Court is obliged to conclude that ... the Complainant has not acted reasonably in resigning without having substantially utilised the relevant internal procedures. Accordingly, the Complainant has failed to meet ... the ‘high burden of proof in cases of claimed constructive dismissal’."
The Court dismissed Mr. Shanahan's appeal on that basis.
The Court's decision does not mark any change in the law. Rather, it re-states the long-held view that employees cannot simply resign and expect to succeed with constructive dismissal claims if they have not first brought their concerns to the attention of their employer and attempted to utilise and exhaust internal procedures, such as a grievance procedure.
Employers who require advice in relation to employment law issues or who need representation before the WRC or Labour Court can contact our Adrian Twomey.