This week we look at a recent Labour Court case in which a chef claimed to have been constructively dismissed after he was asked to step down and accept a position as a sous chef. Our Adrian Twomey highlights the key points to note in the case of Sneem House Hotel Limited v Schots, UDD2268.
The Complainant, Mr. Auke Schots, commenced employment as a commis chef at the Sneem Hotel in County Kerry in 2009. He was promoted to sous chef in 2014 and to head chef in 2017. It appears that a number of issues arose in 2019, including significant staff turnover and a desire on the part of the hotel to refresh the menu. That same year saw the Complainant suffering from certain health-related problems, some of which appear to have been related to overwork.
In January 2020, Mr. Schots was summoned to a meeting with the Hotel's General Manager and owner. They told him that they had no confidence in his ability to lead a team and that they wanted him to step down as head chef. He gave evidence to the Labour Court that he was offered a position as a sous chef instead. He later learned that other staff had already been told what was happening and that his job had been advertised and offered to a former relief chef.
Mr. Schots said that he made four attempts to raise a grievance in relation to what he saw as a decision to dismiss him. The Hotel refused to address his grievance and he resigned on 13 February 2020.
Mr. Schots filed a complaint with the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 (as amended). His complaint was heard on 29 November 2021 and dismissed on 10 January 2022. The WRC Adjudication Officer concluded that:
"... the interactions while difficult, looked at in the round and cumulatively do not amount to unreasonable behaviour as there was reasonable cause to commence those discussions."
On that basis, the Adjudication Officer concluded that Mr. Schots had not been constructively dismissed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr. Schots appealed to the Labour Court. The Court noted, when deciding the matter on 6 December 2022, that:
"In order to succeed in a claim of constructive dismissal under the Act, a Complainant must demonstrate that his decision to resign his employment resulted from either a repudiatory breach of his contract of employment by the employer or such unreasonable behaviour by the employer that he could not fairly be expected to put up with it any longer."
While the Court concluded, based on the evidence before it, that the Hotel had not breached the Complainant's contract, it did conclude that the employer's behaviour was so unreasonable as to leave Mr. Schots with no option other than to resign. In particular, the Court noted that:
"the suggestion that the Complainant assume the role of sous-chef at the meeting on the 22 January 2020 in circumstances where the evidence of the Respondent was that one of the purposes of the meeting was to discuss ongoing issues with the Complainant, was unreasonable behaviour on the part of the Respondent. This was further compounded by the behaviour of the Respondent following that meeting in refusing to clarify matters and ignoring the Complainant’s repeated requests that the matter be addressed through the grievance process. The cumulative failure by the Respondent to address the issues in a meaningful way and provide the Complainant with reassurance that his position was safe or if it was not, what he needed to address, when and in what way created an atmosphere for the Complainant that became so difficult for him that his only option was to resign with immediate effect."
Having calculated the loss suffered by Mr. Schots as being €12,500, the Court awarded Mr. Schots compensation in that amount.
Employees should take great care before resigning from gainful employment in order to pursue constructive dismissals claims as they are notoriously difficult to win. Those who require advice in relation to employment law cases or who need representation before the WRC or Labour Court can contact our Adrian Twomey.