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Employee Awarded $18,000 For Unjustified Dismissal Following Workplace Stress

Published 01 Oct 2014

Over $18,000 was awarded to a teacher in Johnston v Board of Trustees of Southern Regional Health School [2014] NZERA Christchurch 112 following an ongoing conflict between two Employee teachers which resulted in the dismissal of one of the teachers for medical incapacity due to workplace stress.

Southern Regional Health School provides education for children who, for various reasons, are unable to attend conventional schools. The Employee (Ms Johnston) was employed as a teacher in Dunedin. Another Employee teacher (Ms Atchison) laid an informal complaint which stated that Ms Johnston was unreliable, lacked professionalism, respect and needed clarity around working responsibilities. This escalated to a formal written complaint relating to Ms Johnston’s performance and contained a log of events. When given to Ms Johnston, further specifics were sought as to the actual allegations.

The School wished to keep the matter at an investigatory level and at a subsequent meeting the matter was referred to mediation in an attempt to repair the fraught relationship. A mediator from the Department of Labour was unable to get them both together in the same room. A subsequent team building exercise in Hamner Springs despite good intentions ended up being totally destructive of the relationship between the two Employees.

After an attempt to arrange a further mediation, Ms Johnston went on sick leave. Ms Johnston was absent for four months of which medical certificates were provided citing the stress relating to the employment issues. After trying to get further medical information, Ms Johnston was proving obstructive. The School set down a date for a meeting which proceeded to discuss a rehabilitation plan. A few days later, the School changed its mind due to inconsistencies in the evidence and noted its intention to terminate for medical incapacity. Rather than wait for further medical evidence, the School confirmed the dismissal for medical incapacity.

The Employment Relations Authority held that the employment relationship was destroyed, the workplace dysfunctional and animosity evident. It was held that not acting on the complaint and failing to communicate it allowed a bad situation to fester and deteriorate. However, it rejected the statement that the taking a log of events was an attempt to allow Ms Atchison to spy on Ms Johnston. In terms of the dismissal for medical incapacity, it was held that the School’s concerns of inconsistencies should have been put to Ms Johnston; that the school should have waited another couple of days as the statement "I’d had enough" indicated predetermination; and Ms Johnston was not given an opportunity to address all the decision-makers.

The decision represents a reminder to Employers to voice their concerns early and formally but also to remain patient during dismissals for medical incapacity. Here, the medical incapacity was caused by the workplace relationship between the Employees so a degree of leniency should have been afforded. The statement that a failure to communicate allowed the problem to fester is unfortunate, as the School made a deliberate decision to try to appease both parties. Nonetheless, the inconsistencies were not discussed transparently, predetermination was obvious, and there should have been clarity surrounding the decision-making process.

For an in-depth discussion and the process & systems required regarding medical incapacity situations please see our new eBook - Medical Incapacity. Members, this eBook is available for download from the Dashboard Library of the Employers Toolbox Online.