This week we look at a recent decision of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in which a railway worker was imprisoned. He then sued for unfair dismissal when he lost his job. The decision in the case of Flynn v Iarnród Éireann, ADJ-00030195, turned on whether the employee had been dismissed or his contract had been "frustrated". Our Adrian Twomey highlights the key points to note in the decisions.
The Complainant, Muiris Flynn, commenced employed with Iarnród Éireann as an electrician on 8 January 2008. He was paid €988 per week.
Mr. Flynn was involved in a very serious road traffic accident on 24 September 2017. It appears that alcohol was a significant a factor and that Mr. Flynn crashed into two cyclists causing them devastating injuries. He was subsequently charged with dangerous driving causing harm and was convicted. He was sentenced to four years in prison with the last two and a half years of that term being suspended. The Court of Appeal subsequently found that sentence to be unduly lenient and added a €20,000 fine.
In any event, Mr. Flynn informed his employer of his conviction between the date of same and the sentencing date. When he was given a prison sentence in October 2019, he informed his employer before going to prison and serving his term.
Iarnród Éireann wrote to the Complainant on 8 March 2020, terminating his employment with effect from 25 March of that year. The letter stated that Mr. Flynn's contract of employment had been frustrated as a result of his imprisonment in 2019. In response, Mr. Flynn filed claims with the WRC under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 (as amended) and the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act 1973 (as amended).
Frustration of contract is a long-standing legal concept that serves to end a contract automatically or by operation of law when it becomes impossible to perform due to unforeseen circumstances outside the control of the parties. It is certainly more than arguable that Mr. Flynn's contract of employment was frustrated when he was imprisoned as he simply could not attend at work and discharge his duties. Iarnród Éireann advanced just such an argument at the WRC hearing. They relied on the case of Gallagher v Eircom, UD955/2004, in which the Employment Appeals Tribunal had dismissed an unfair dismissal claim on the basis that the contract of employment had been frustrated.
The Adjudication Officer in the Flynn case, however, had different ideas. He noted that if the contract had been frustrated, that happened in October 2019 when the Complainant was imprisoned. He went on to find the dismissal to be unfair, observing that:
"... the Respondent was aware of the Complainant’s incarceration for a period of four months prior to their deeming the matter to be frustrated. I further note that in addition to maintaining the Complainant’s employment for this period of time, the Respondent allowed a period of notice of termination from the date of communication. Having regard to the foregoing, the Respondent’s own position in this regard is somewhat contradictory. If indeed it was the case that the Complainant’s contract of employment was terminated by operation of law the previous year, there would be no requirement to give him notice thereafter. The provision of the same is indicative of a contractual relationship that survived the event...."
Having found that Iarnród Éireann had dismissed Mr. Flynn and that the dismissal was fair, the Adjudication Officer went on to consider the question of compensation. He noted that the Complainant had found alternative employment and that his conduct had contributed to his dismissal. On that basis, he made an award of €4,000 in compensation.
It is difficult to understand how an employer can be found to have unfairly dismissed an employee who has been imprisoned and is unable to perform their duties as a result. Arguably, Mr. Flynn's contract of employment was frustrated in October 2019 and nothing that either party said or did after that date should have been interpreted as changing that fact. However, it is worth noting that in this case the WRC effectively found that the employer had undermined its' own argument by delaying and then giving notice of termination.
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.