Growcott v Glaze Auto Parts Ltd UKEAT/0419/11/SM
Appeal against a costs order made against the claimant after an unsuccessful claim of unfair dismissal.
The claimant was dismissed after an act of gross misconduct which involved swearing at the employees of one of the respondent's major clients. She brought a claim of unfair dismissal, and the respondent's solicitors responded to the claim with an email that warned the claimant that they would pursue a claim for costs against her if her complaint was dismissed because they believed her claim was misconceived. The ET rejected her claim of unfair dismissal and made a costs order against her.
The EAT rejected her appeal, saying that her criticisms of the ET were largely criticisms of their original rejection of her unfair dismissal claim. The ET were entitled to find that the employee had acted unreasonably in continuing her claim after the receipt of the email.
Appeal No. UKEAT/0419/11/SM
*EMPLOYMENT APPEAL TRIBUNAL*
FLEETBANK HOUSE, 2-6 SALISBURY SQUARE, LONDON EC4Y 8JX
At the Tribunal
On 6 February 2012
HIS HONOUR JEFFREY BURKE QC, MR B BEYNON, MR S YEBOAH
MRS C E GROWCOTT (APPELLANT)
GLAZE AUTO PARTS LTD (RESPONDENT)
Transcript of Proceedings
For the Appellant
No appearance or representation by or on behalf of the Appellant
For the Respondent
MR M LEASON
(The Respondent in Person)
*PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE – Costs*
The employee was, after investigation dismissed for misconduct. Her unfair dismissal claim failed, as did her appeal against the Employment Tribunal's decision. The employers then sought and obtained an order that the employee should pay their costs from the date of an email sent to the employee by the employers' solicitors warning her of the issues in the unfair dismissal proceedings, and of the Burchell principles and that if she persisted they would apply for costs. She went ahead despite the email.
The employee appealed against the costs order; her criticisms of the ET were largely criticisms of their original rejection of her unfair dismissal claim. *Held*: that the ET were entitled to find that the employee had acted unreasonably in continuing her claim after the email.****HIS HONOUR JEFFREY BURKE QC********Introduction****
- In this appeal Mrs Growcott, the Claimant before the Employment Tribunal, seeks to overturn the costs decision of the Tribunal sitting in Birmingham, presided over by Employment Judge Saunby. The Judgment was sent to the parties on 5 January 2011. Written reasons were given by the Employment Tribunal some time later, in circumstances which are now immaterial. Mrs Growcott has not appeared this morning. There has been no communication from her, there has been no indication that she was not intending to attend, and there is no explanation of her absence. The staff have phoned her number and had no answer. It is necessary to say that this is the Monday after very substantial snowfall on Saturday throughout the country; but we have checked the internet, there is no evidence of any substantial delay on the trains coming from the West Midlands, where Mrs Growcott lives. The information is that there is a 20 minute delay between Birmingham and Coventry, but no delays south of that point. This hearing was listed for 10.30am; we did not start then, because we waited to see if Mrs Growcott would arrive, until 11.10am. It is now 11.20am, and she still has not arrived. We have therefore decided to proceed in her absence.
- Mrs Growcott was dismissed by her employers, Glaze Auto Parts Ltd, whom we shall call "Glaze", for misconduct on 18 December 2009. The misconduct relied upon was the use of foul and abusive language to the employees of a major customer of Glaze to whom Mrs Growcott, in her position as a delivery driver, was delivering automotive parts. There was a disciplinary hearing, the nature and process of which are set out in detail in the Employment Tribunal's Judgment on Mrs Growcott's unfair dismissal claim. At its conclusion Mr Leason, Glaze's Managing Director, dismissed Mrs Growcott. Her appeal, heard by a director of Glaze who does not work for Glaze on a day to day basis, failed.
- At the time of the disciplinary hearing and before the Employment Tribunal Mrs Growcott was critical of the disciplinary process, in particular because the two men to whom she had alleged used abusive language to and another employee of the customer, who was said to have witnessed the incident, were not called to give live evidence at the disciplinary hearing or at the appeal; and there were no witness statements from them. Mr Leason proceeded on the basis of what they had said to him about relevant events. The Tribunal, correctly in law, rejected Mrs Growcott's criticisms; as they said at paragraph 77, those witnesses were not employed by Glaze, and Mr Leason could not compel their attendance. It is commonplace that internal disciplinary proceedings involve a decision on the basis of such information as the employer has. If the employer is able to obtain witness statements from people who are not his own employees or able to secure their attendance and wishes them to give evidence to a disciplinary hearing, then of course that gives the opportunity to the employee who is being disciplined to examine those witness statements and, if permitted to do so, question any witnesses who are called live, but it is not necessary for an employer to call such witnesses or to obtain such witness statements. In so far as Mrs Growcott believed that such proceedings should be in the nature of a trial, she was in error; the proceedings were internal and were private.
- The Employment Tribunal, having rejected those criticisms, were satisfied that Mr Leason had made reasonable efforts to obtain witness statements which confirmed what he had been told. They concluded, as no doubt they were entitled to conclude, that the disciplinary process was a reasonable one. They went on to apply the well known principles in British Home Stores Ltd v Burchell  IRLR 379 and concluded that Glaze, after a reasonable investigation, genuinely believed that there had been the misconduct complained of and that the dismissal fell within the band of reasonable responses; and therefore the dismissal was not unfair.
- Mrs Growcott appealed against that decision. It was decided at the sift stage of the Employment Appeal Tribunal's procedures that there were no reasonable prospects that her appeal would succeed. As she was entitled to do, she sought an oral hearing pursuant to rule 3(10) of the Employment Appeal Tribunal Rules; and her appeal was dismissed at that hearing as having no reasonable prospect of success.
- Within time after the original hearing before the Tribunal, Glaze applied for costs pursuant to rule 38 of the Employment Tribunal Rules on the grounds that Mrs Growcott had acted unreasonably in conducting the proceedings or that the proceedings had been misconceived. There was a further hearing before the same Tribunal panel on 7 December 2010. The Tribunal found that the claim was not misconceived but that it had been unreasonably pursued after 14 June 2010, and ordered Mrs Growcott to pay £1,972.50 in costs to Glaze, who had, at the original hearing, been represented by their solicitor. Mrs Growcott did not attend the costs hearing, at which Glaze were represented by Mr Leason. There had been an exchange of written submissions which were before the Tribunal, and we have seen Mrs Growcott's written submissions, which she has put into the bundle before us.
- At that hearing Glaze argued that the proceedings had been misconceived or unreasonably conducted from their outset, but that, if that was not the case, they had been unreasonably pursued after 14 June 2010, when Glaze's solicitors sent to Mrs Growcott an email, which was crucial to the Employment Tribunal's decision. It was crucial because the Tribunal, rejecting Glaze's argument that the proceedings had been misconceived from the beginning, accepted their alternative case that, after receipt of the email, she had acted unreasonably in continuing to pursue her claim. The email is at page 48 of our bundle. It says, so far as the relevant parts are concerned:
"Dear Mrs Growcutt [sic]**
We have now had an opportunity to get up to speed with the papers on this case.**
It seems to us that your Claim for Unfair Dismissal is misconceived.**
You appear to be criticising our client for concluding on the balance of probabilities that you were guilty of the misconduct alleged.**
The legal test of a fair dismissal for gross misconduct was laid down by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of [Burchell]. It does not require actual proof of your guilt. Our client has to show:-**
a) That it genuinely believed in your guilt;**
b) That it had in its mind reasonable grounds upon which to sustain that belief;**
c) At the time that belief was formed it had carried out such investigation as was reasonable in all the circumstances.**
The case law goes on to say that the manner of investigation and the decision to dismiss must come within the range of reasonable responses open to the employer.**
It is entirely clear that our client genuinely believed you were guilty.**
It is also clear that it had reasonable grounds on which to come to that belief. Mr Leason had been told by 3 people that they had heard you use foul language. Since there was no obvious reason as to why all 3 of them should be lying it is self evident that a reasonable employer could decide to believe the allegations.**
The procedure followed was fair. When you asked for more time to prepare you were given this. The ACAS guidelines (which are client has already indicated to you, correctly, are guidelines and not a rigid code of law) do not impose an obligation on an employer to obtain statements from third parties who are not employed by them, still less that they are obliged to require those witnesses to attend a disciplinary hearing. Our client had no power to compel those people to provide written statements or to attend. You were given every opportunity to challenge the evidence or to call whatever witnesses at the hearing you wished to call. We do not see how the presence of the people from VW Rescue would have made any difference to the outcome. You would have repeated your denial, they would have disagreed with you and the result of the process would have been entirely the same.**
We do not see that the fact that you were not suspended is of any relevance. As soon as the investigation was complete you were invited to a disciplinary hearing. It was made clear in the letter inviting you to the meeting that dismissal was a potential outcome. It was not therefore the case that the fact that you were not suspended could have led you to believe that the Respondent did not consider the matter to be serious.**
As to whether the dismissal was within the range of reasonable responses, it is clear that it was. Regardless of the exact percentage of its turnover that VW Rescue represented, our client was clearly entitled to take the view that swearing twice at a customer was completely unacceptable for someone in a 'customer facing' role and therefore that it amounted to gross misconduct.**
As such, your Claim is inviting the Tribunal to deal with the case as if it were a further tier of appeal and to substitute its view of the case for that of our client. This is not the Tribunal's function. […]**
We would therefore invite you to withdraw your Claim. If the Claim is not withdrawn in full now, in the event that the Claim is dismissed we reserve our client's right to bring this email letter to the attention of the Tribunal and we will be inviting the Tribunal to conclude that the Claim was misconceived and that costs should be awarded against you.**
If you have not already sought independent legal advice about this matter we would encourage you to do so as soon as possible.**
Rees Page Solicitors"**
- That email is couched in accurate, straightforward and simple terms. It was wholly suitable to convey to any litigant the way in which the Employment Tribunal was bound to approach the forthcoming hearing. Plainly the writer had taken great care with it, although that is in truth immaterial; it is the substance, not his intention, which is important, and it is not our view of it but the Employment Tribunal's view of it that is important. The Employment Tribunal, plainly from their costs Judgment, directed themselves properly as to the applicable law. No criticism of their approach to the law is or can be made. They regarded that email as being a fair and sensible warning to Mrs Growcott of the way in which the Tribunal would approach her unfair dismissal claim and that, if she continued to proceed with her claim, she would be running a risk as to an award of costs.
- A decision as to whether, in relation to proceedings before them, a litigant has acted unreasonably so as to fall within the powers of the Tribunal to make a costs order is one for the Tribunal to make on the facts based on their consideration of the evidence and of the submissions made to them. Anyone who seeks to challenge such a decision has a difficult task. Mrs Growcott has reminded us, however, by referring to the decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Lake v Arco Grating (UK) Ltd 0511/04/RN, decided on 3 November 2004, that, if the Tribunal in reaching a cost decision can be seen to have done so on the basis of defective or inadequate reasoning, then the Employment Appeal Tribunal must be ready to step in. It is perhaps unfortunate that in her written submissions to the Employment Tribunal for the costs hearing Mrs Growcott did not, to any substantial extent, address the discretionary exercise that the Tribunal were going to have to carry out. Her submissions were, for the most part, a highly articulate and trenchant critique of the Employment Tribunal's original decision. Perhaps because she did not see the importance or potential importance of it, she did not refer to the email at all, albeit that that email was going to be or at least could be fundamental to the Tribunal's consideration of costs issues.
- What she was seeking to do in her submissions was to persuade the Tribunal that an order for costs should not be made against her because she had not acted unreasonably, and she had not acted unreasonably because the Tribunal had been wrong to conclude against her on her unfair dismissal claim. What she perhaps understandably failed to appreciate was that the Tribunal could not have approached the costs issues on the basis that they had been, or even might have been, wrong. They had made their decision; and, subject to any successful appeal against that decision, that decision was their point of departure when considering the costs issues. They could not depart in any sense from what they had already decided. They had to base their approach to the question of costs on the basis of their conclusions and their original decision; and, in so far as the written submissions that Mrs Growcott has put forward in support of this appeal again go to attack the original Tribunal decision they have no and can have no weight in our considerations today.
- We need to say what those documents are. Mrs Growcott put forward a Notice of Appeal, which is dated 30 May 2011, in which the grounds are in very general terms. She supported that with another document, and has further supported her appeal with a skeleton argument dated 30 November 2011. That skeleton argument to a very large extent repeats what she said in the letter of 30 May, and it is the skeleton argument from which we have approached the arguments she wishes us to consider on this appeal.
- Her first submission is that, in paragraph 12 of the Tribunal's costs Judgment, they said this:
"It was perhaps significant that at nowhere in those documents did the Claimant say that she did not do the act for which she was dismissed. She argued, as she did at the original hearing, that the evidence was not sufficient to prove that she did anything wrong. Neither in those documents nor in the ET1 did the Claimant say that she did not use the foul and offensive language which led to her dismissal."**
- Mrs Growcott argues that the Tribunal have there made errors of fact. She says that she had denied that she had used foul and offensive language in her ET1, and that she had made denials under oath at the original hearing before the Tribunal and in her witness statement, and also to the disciplinary hearing. She is right about the ET1. Paragraph 5.2 of the ET1 reads as follows in the first four lines:
"16/11/09 After a discussion with two mechanics at a customers workshop I was accused of using foul and abusive language to them. I deny using any abusive language to anyone."**
- Although she does not deny using foul language, foul language, if used, is obviously abusive, and it would be wholly wrong to take some technical point on the precise words used by a lay person. We should treat that as a denial. The Tribunal in paragraph 12 say, "Neither in those documents nor in the ET1 …". "Those documents" are her submissions on costs on 29 September and 9 November, which do not, as far as we can see, at least on perusal with a certain amount of attention, contain denials; but she did deny it in the ET1; and the Tribunal have, in that respect, made an error. However, in our view that is not an error that begins to vitiate their costs decision. The forthcoming ET hearing to adjudicate upon Mrs Growcott's claim as it was at the date of the email was not going to involve a relevant study as to whether Mrs Growcott had denied the allegations against her or not. The Tribunal had to look not at whether Mrs Growcott's account of what had happened at the customer's premises was true or false, but whether the employers had carried out a reasonable process in coming to the decision that they did. The Tribunal had to decide not only whether there had been a reasonable investigation but whether Mr Leason genuinely believed Mrs Growcott to have acted as was alleged against her, and whether Glaze's response was within the range of reasonable responses, but they did not have to decide whether Mrs Growcott had used the language to which objection was taken.
- That being so, Mrs Growcott's denial or non denial was not of significant relevance to the original Tribunal; and it was not of any significant relevance, in our judgment, to the question of whether she had acted reasonably after receipt of the email. The Tribunal say in their costs decision that the absence of a denial was perhaps significant; but that significance could only, in our judgment, relate to the question as to whether the proceedings had been misconceived from the beginning. That issue they decided in Mrs Growcott's favour. What they say in paragraph 12, in our judgment, does not establish any ground for criticism of the Tribunal's decision on the alternative limb of Glaze's argument at the costs hearing, namely whether or not she had acted reasonably after she had received the email. The Tribunal dealt with that question in paragraphs 24 31 of their costs Judgment. What they said at paragraphs 25 and 26 accurately set out the content and effect of the email, and they came to the conclusion, which was a matter for them on the material before them, that Mrs Growcott had, in continuing with her proceedings despite the email, acted unreasonably.
- Mrs Growcott next focuses on paragraph 13 of the Employment Tribunal's Judgment, where the Tribunal said:
"Neither of course had the claimant attempted to obtain statements from the customer's employees to whom Mr Leason said he had spoken. It had always been open to the claimant to obtain that evidence herself and produce it at the disciplinary hearing or indeed at the tribunal hearing."**
- Mrs Growcott says that that was incorrect because she had asked Mr Leason on more than one occasion to obtain witness statements from those witnesses and, in the absence of witness statements, to obtain the presence of the three witnesses from the customer's staff at the disciplinary hearing. Mrs Growcott has, however, in our judgment misunderstood what the Tribunal were saying in paragraph 13. They were not saying that Mrs Growcott had not sought to persuade Mr Leason to obtain witness statements and produce the witnesses; she obviously had. What they were saying was that she had not herself taken steps to get witness statements from those witnesses or to produce them to the Tribunal; and that appears to be true; certainly, she does not suggest anything to the contrary. What the Tribunal said was a finding of fact relevant to the costs issue which the Tribunal was entitled to make. A criticism of it could only succeed if it were to be shown that there was an overwhelming case that that conclusion was perverse; there is no such overwhelming case. Indeed, in our judgment, there is no case at all that anything that the Tribunal said in paragraph 13 was wrong.
- From that point Mrs Growcott, in the documents that we have read and considered with some care, attacks the email; but she does so on the basis that there had been no proper investigation, that there was no evidence other than in the hearsay evidence of the three witnesses, and arguments of that type, which were the arguments she developed at the original Tribunal hearing and no doubt sought to put forward again as part of her appeal against the Judgment in Glaze's favour at the original hearing.
- Unhappily, all, save the points about paragraph 12 and 13 of the costs decision, Mrs Growcott's various documents amount to is a series of criticisms of the original decision, which no doubt she feels very deeply to have been wholly flawed; but that is not a question upon which we can begin to embark; nor is the fact that she lost, when she believes she should have won, relevant. The Tribunal found, on the material available to them, not that she had lost but that she had received the email, and that once she had done so, it was unreasonable for her to go on with the claim. That was a question of fact and discretion for them; there is nothing that shows that their findings of fact or their exercise of discretion was perverse or in error of law. For those reasons this appeal is dismissed.
Published: 09/03/2012 16:19