Doctor dismissed for alleged gross professional misconduct pursued £4m damages in High Court
Dr Michael Edwards was a consultant at the Chesterfield Royal Hospital. He was dismissed for gross professional and personal misconduct following a disciplinary hearing. He appealed but his appeal was dismissed.
Edwards claimed that his employer followed the wrong disciplinary process and that they should have followed a contractual procedure, which would have entitled him to a panel hearing and the right to legal representation. In addition, he had a contractual entitlement to three months’ notice. Edwards brought a claim for unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal, but withdrew this and brought a claim in the County Court for losses arising out of the breach of contract as a result of the failure to follow the contractual disciplinary process.
The County Court awarded damages for wrongful dismissal for three months’ income to reflect his notice period. Edwards then appealed to the High Court, claiming loss of earnings of more than £4m for both past and future losses as a result of the loss of his whole career. He argued that had there been a properly constituted disciplinary procedure, the allegations of professional misconduct would not have been established and for this reason he claimed loss of future earnings that he claimed had arisen as a result of this breach of contract.
The High Court rejected Edwards’ argument that he should have had the opportunity to prove that he would have been exonerated by properly conducted disciplinary proceedings. While a failure to follow the correct disciplinary procedure is likely to make a dismissal unfair and attract compensation within the statutory framework (ie at an employment tribunal), an employer is entitled to dismiss on contractual notice at common law for whatever reason. Losses are therefore limited to the sums payable to the employee had the employment been lawfully terminated under the contract.
In accordance with case law, a claim for damages remains constrained to the amount of time it would take for the contractual disciplinary process to have been carried out, together with the employee’s contractual notice period. It has to be assumed that the employer would have dismissed at the first available moment – ie once the correct disciplinary procedure had been completed. The court was not concerned as to whether the employee would have been dismissed had the contract been performed, but rather how long would the employee have been employed before the employer was contractually entitled to give notice.
Therefore, the High Court accepted that in addition to the three months’ notice period, Edwards should also recover the income he would have earned during the period that the disciplinary procedure would have taken, if conducted and completed in accordance with the contractual provisions.
This case highlights the civil courts’ refusal to address shortcomings in statutory employment protection through the use of common law. Edwards’ compensation would be limited to the statutory cap had he brought a claim in the employment tribunal, and the High Court was not prepared to allow him to use the civil courts to essentially extend this cap.
It will also be relevant to employees with less than a year’s service who may not have ordinary unfair dismissal rights but will have the right to bring claims for breach of contract in the civil courts. It is important to ensure that any contractual disciplinary procedure is followed to avoid a breach of contract claim. It is preferable for disciplinary procedures to be expressly non-contractual to avoid such claims.
Emilie Darwin, solicitor, Rickerbys