In DLA Piper’s latest case report, a Court of Appeal decision highlights the need for employers to invest time and resources into investigating disciplinary allegations.
Coventry University v Mian  EWCA Civ 1275 CA
Dr Mian worked as a senior lecturer at Coventry University. In 2007, Coventry University was contacted by Greenwich University, which stated that a reference that it had received in relation to one of Dr Mian’s former colleagues, Dr Javed, did not appear to correspond with his performance. The reference in question was written on Coventry University’s headed notepaper and signed by Dr Mian. The reference was inaccurate and misleading, and overstated Dr Javed’s qualifications and achievements.
In the light of this information, Coventry University commenced an investigation, which involved obtaining further details from Greenwich University about how it had requested the reference and speaking with Dr Mian’s line manager.
Dr Mian’s line manager was of the view that the signature on the reference was not that of Dr Mian. In spite of this, Coventry University went ahead and conducted a search of Dr Mian’s computer without her knowledge.
The search revealed three other draft references for Dr Javed. All three references were similar in content to the reference Greenwich University had received.
Coventry University invited Dr Mian to a preliminary meeting to discuss the allegations. Prior to the meeting, Dr Mian was provided with a copy of the reference that Greenwich University had received. Dr Mian denied writing the inaccurate references and stated that they had been provided by Dr Javed himself.
Dr Mian stated that she had refused to use the misleading references and had instead written shorter ones, but had since deleted these from her computer. Dr Mian alleged that she had felt intimidated by Dr Javed.
Following the meeting, Coventry University met with Dr Mian’s line manager to discuss whether or not she had ever mentioned feeling intimidated by Dr Javed. Dr Mian’s line manager confirmed that this issue had never been raised with her and that, in actual fact, Dr Mian and Dr Javed had a “cordial” relationship.
On the basis of the above, Coventry University concluded that disciplinary proceedings should be commenced to consider whether or not Dr Mian had committed an act of gross misconduct by assisting Dr Javed in the preparation of a misleading reference.
Dr Mian went off sick and the disciplinary hearing was delayed until finally being heard in her absence. The allegations against Dr Mian were dismissed.
Dr Mian left Coventry University and found alternative employment. She subsequently brought proceedings against Coventry University, alleging that it had been negligent and had caused her psychiatric injury by commencing disciplinary proceedings without carrying out a thorough investigation.
Court of Appeal decision
At first instance, the judge upheld Dr Mian’s claim. However, this decision was appealed and overturned by the Court of Appeal. In its judgment, the Court of Appeal emphasised that:
- to decide whether or not an employer has breached its duty of care, the correct test is whether or not the decision to instigate disciplinary proceedings was reasonable and “within the range of reasonable responses”;
- when deciding whether or not an employer has breached its duty of care, take into account the evidence that was available at the time of the investigation, including the evidence that should have been available had a thorough investigation been carried out; and
- reasonable employers can come to different conclusions without breaching the duty of care that they owe to their employees.
Implications for employers
The Court of Appeal’s decision serves as a timely reminder of the importance of conducting a thorough investigation before making any decision in relation to whether or not an employee should face disciplinary proceedings. In particular, employers should ensure that:
- the disciplinary allegations are clearly articulated to the employee at the start of the process;
- a thorough investigation into the disciplinary allegations is undertaken;
- all relevant witnesses are interviewed;
- all relevant evidence is gathered;
- any new issues that arise during the course of the investigatory process are thoroughly investigated; and
- the seriousness of the allegations is kept in mind when coming to a decision.