Misconduct and unfair dismissal cases

How does the Fair Work Commission decide if conduct is misconduct? Here is the answer.

“The Applicant was dismissed for gross misconduct. Not only does the Applicant say that his dismissal was ‘harsh, unreasonable and unjust,’ but he also denies having committed misconduct. With this in view, the onus is on the Respondent to prove to the Commission’s satisfaction, on the balance of probabilities, that the misconduct occurred, see: Pastrycooks Union v Gartrell White (No. 3) 3 and Yew v ACI Glass Packaging Pty Ltd.4

[22] While decided in a different statutory context, the comments of Moore J in Edwards v Giudice, 5 at paragraphs [4] and [7] are apposite:

“In the present case the Full Bench concluded that Commissioner Tolley had failed to determine whether Mr Edwards was guilty of misconduct in the way alleged by Telstra Corporation Ltd and that the Commissioner should have done so as part of ascertaining whether her termination had been harsh, unjust or unreasonable. The approach of the Full Bench was, in my opinion, unexceptionable. When the reason for a termination is based on the misconduct of the employee, the Commission must, if it is an issue in proceedings challenging the termination, determine whether the conduct occurred. The obligation to make such a determination flows from s 170CG(3)(a). That is, the Commission must determine whether the alleged conduct took place and what it involved.

The reason would be valid because the conduct occurred and justified termination. The reason might not be valid because the conduct did not occur or it did occur but did not justify termination. An employee may concede in an arbitration that the conduct took place because, for example, it involved a trivial misdemeanour. In those circumstances the employee might elect to contest the termination in the arbitration on the basis that the conduct took place but the conduct did not provide a valid reason and perhaps also by relying on the other grounds in paras (b) to (e). However an employee may not concede or admit, for the purposes of the arbitration, that the conduct occurred or may not be prepared to accept that the Commission could assume the conduct occurred. In either situation the employee would be putting in issue whether the conduct occurred. In my opinion the Commission must, in these circumstances, determine whether the conduct occurred as a step in resolving whether there was a valid reason. I do not see how the Commission can move straight to a consideration of whether termination was justified by assuming the conduct did occur. First the Commission would have failed to resolve an issue raised by and relied on by the employee, namely whether the conduct occurred at all. Second the Commission would have failed to make findings by reference to which a Full Bench might have to determine an appeal where the Commission had concluded the termination was harsh unjust or unreasonable on assumed facts and not facts found.”

[Emphasis added]

[23] In King v Freshmore, 6 a Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission said at paras [24], [26], [28] and [29]:

“[24] The question of whether the alleged conduct took place and what it involved is to be determined by the Commission on the basis of the evidence in the proceedings before it. The test is not whether the employer believed, on reasonable grounds after sufficient enquiry, that the employee was guilty of the conduct which resulted in termination.

[26] As we have noted above, s.170CG(3)(a) obliges the Commission to make a finding as to whether there was a valid reason for the termination of employment. In circumstances where a reason for termination is based on the conduct of the employee the Commission must also determine whether the alleged conduct took place and what it involved.

[28] It is apparent from the above extract that his Honour answered the question of whether the alleged misconduct took place on the basis of whether it was reasonably open to the employer to conclude that the employee was guilty of the misconduct which resulted in termination. This is not the correct approach. The Commission’s obligation is to determine, for itself and on the basis of the evidence in the proceedings before it, whether the alleged misconduct took place and what it involved.

[29] In our view the Senior Deputy President failed to determine for himself whether Mr King was guilty of misconduct in the way alleged by Freshmore and he should have done so as part of determining whether the termination had been harsh, unjust or unreasonable. When the reason for a termination is based on the misconduct of the employee the Commission must, if it is an issue in the proceedings challenging the termination, determine whether the conduct occurred. The absence of such a finding leads us to conclude that the member below failed to properly determine whether there was a valid reason for the termination of Mr King’s employment.”

[Emphasis added]

[24] The meaning of “valid reason” in s.387(a) is drawn from the judgment of Justice Northrop in Selvachandran v Peterson Plastics Pty Ltd. 7 This meaning, which has been applied by members of this Commission and its predecessors for many years, was stated as follows:

“In its context in s 170DE(1), the adjective “valid” should be given the meaning of sound, defensible or well founded. A reason which is capricious, fanciful, spiteful or prejudiced could never be a valid reason for the purposes of s.170DE(1). At the same time the reasons must be valid in the context of the employee’s capacity or conduct or based upon the operational requirements of the employer’s business. Further, in considering whether a reason is valid, it must be remembered that the requirement applies in the practical sphere of the relationship between an employer and an employee where each has rights and privileges and duties and obligations conferred and imposed on them. The provisions must “be applied in a practical, commonsense way to ensure that the employer and employee are treated fairly.”

Allan v Heartland Motors Pty Ltd (2021) FWC 1242 delivered 8 March 2021 per Cross DP