Unfair dismissal and serious misconduct

 

The meaning of “serious misconduct” by an employee in Australian employment law is plagued by controversy and uncertainty. This has not always been the case, but it is now an important legal issue since the Fair Work Act 2009 came into operation. Most of the disputes about what the term means arises from the drafting of the Act and of the Small business Fair Dismissal Code. The issue is also complicated by the interaction of the Act with the common law.

However here is an extract from a recent Fair Work Commission decision which puts the matter into some kind of perspective.

“Allegations of serious misconduct

It is uncontested that Ms Rojas was summarily dismissed on 15 December 2017 by Mr Skry for alleged ‘grave misconduct’. It is trite that there is no definition in the Act of ‘grave’ misconduct. That said, it may comfortably be accepted that ‘grave’ misconduct is at least equivalent to serious misconduct. On one view, given the meaning of ‘grave’, Mr Skry intended this description as being worse conduct than serious misconduct. ‘Grave’ is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as ‘important or critical’. ‘Serious misconduct’ is defined in the Act’s Regulations. Regulation 1.07 sets out the definition as follows:

1.07 Meaning of serious misconduct

(1) For the definition of serious misconduct in section 12 of the Act, serious misconduct has its ordinary meaning.

(2) For subregulation (1), conduct that is serious misconduct includes both of the following:

(a) wilful or deliberate behaviour by an employee that is inconsistent with the continuation of the contract of employment;

(b) conduct that causes serious and imminent risk to:

(i) the health or safety of a person; or

(ii) the reputation, viability or profitability of the employer’s business.

(3)  For subregulation (1), conduct that is serious misconduct includes each of the following:

(a) the employee, in the course of the employee’s employment, engaging in:

(i)  theft; or

(ii)  fraud; or

(iii)  assault;

(b) the employee being intoxicated at work;

(c) the employee refusing to carry out a lawful and reasonable instruction that is consistent with the employee’s contract of employment.’

It is evident from Mr Skry’s submissions that he relied on Reg 1.07(2)(b)(i). It must be made clear that a reliance on the Regulation or a view of ‘grave misconduct’, is not determinative of whether an act of serious misconduct constitutes a valid reason for dismissal. In Sharp v BCS Infrastructure Support Pty Limited [2015] FWCFB 1033, the Full Bench of the Commission said at para [33]-[34]:

‘[33] The relevance of the definition of “serious misconduct” in reg.1.07 to the matter is also, with respect, obscure. Section 12 of the Act contains a definition of “serious misconduct” for the purposes of the Act which simply cross-refers to reg.1.07. Apart from s.12 itself, the expression “serious misconduct” is used in only three places in the Act. In s.123(1)(b), a dismissal for serious misconduct is a circumstance in which the notice and redundancy entitlement provisions of Pt 2-2 Div 11 are not applicable; in s.534(1)(b) a dismissal for serious misconduct is one to which the requirements for notification and consultation in Pt 3-6 Div 2 do not apply; and in s.789(1)(b) a dismissal for serious misconduct is one in relation to which the requirements established by Pt 6-4 Div 3 for notification and consultation do not apply. The expression “serious misconduct” is not used anywhere in Pt 3-2, Unfair Dismissal, of the Act. Section 392(3) requires the Commission, in relation to the award of compensation for an unfair dismissal, to reduce the amount that it would otherwise order by an appropriate amount where it is “satisfied that the misconduct of a person contributed to the employer’s decision to dismiss the person”. However, it is clear that conduct may constitute “misconduct” for the purpose of s.392(3) without necessarily being “serious misconduct”. The expression is used in the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code, but that had no application in this case (and it is at least highly doubtful in any event whether the reg.1.07 definition applies to the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code). Reg.1.07 therefore had no work to do in the application of the provisions of Pt 3-2 to the circumstances of this case.

[34] It may be accepted that an assessment of the degree of seriousness of misconduct which has been found to constitute a valid reason for dismissal for the purposes of s.387(a) is a relevant matter to be taken into account under s.387(h). In that context, a conclusion that the misconduct was of such a nature as to have justified summary dismissal may also be relevant. Even so, it is unclear that this requires a consideration of whether an employee’s conduct met a postulated standard of “serious misconduct”. In Rankin v Marine Power International Pty Ltd  Gillard J stated that “There is no rule of law that defines the degree of misconduct which would justify dismissal without notice” and identified the touchstone as being whether the conduct was of such a grave nature as to be repugnant to the employment relationship. “Serious misconduct” is sometimes used as a rubric for conduct of this nature, but to adopt it as a fixed standard for the consideration of misconduct for the purpose of s.387(h) may be confusing or misleading because the expression, and other expressions of a similar nature, have been considered and applied in a variety of contexts in ways which are influenced by those contexts. In McDonald v Parnell Laboratories (Aust) Pty Ltd Buchanan J said:

“[48] The terms ‘misconduct’, ‘serious misconduct’ and ‘serious and wilful misconduct’ are often the subject of judicial and administrative attention as applied to the facts of particular cases but there is relatively little judicial discussion about their content and meaning. Naturally enough, when the term ‘serious misconduct’ is under consideration an evaluation of what conduct represents ‘serious’ misconduct is influenced by the (usually statutory) setting in which the phrase must be given meaning and applied. Frequently, for example, the question at issue is whether an employee is disentitled by reason of his or her conduct to a statutory entitlement (eg. in New South Wales, where Ms McDonald was employed, see Long Service Leave Act 1955 (NSW) s 4(2)(a)(iii); Workers Compensation Act 1987 (NSW) s 14(2).”’ (footnotes omitted)

The notion of wilful or deliberate behaviour amounting to serious misconduct is conduct which strikes at the heart of the employment relationship. That concept has been considered in a number of well known authorities (although characterised in slightly different ways). In North v Television Corporation Ltd, (1976) 11 ALR 599 Franki J said at p 616:

‘It is clear that a single act of disobedience may be sufficient to justify dismissal on the ground of misconduct but it was held in Laws v London Chronicle (Indicator Newspapers) Ltd [1959] 2 All ER 285, that to justify summary dismissal a single act must be such as to show that the employee was repudiating the contract of service or one of its essential conditions.’

Laws v London Chronicle (Indicator Newspapers) Ltd [1959] 2 All ER 285 (referred to in the quote above) makes it plain that an act of disobedience or misconduct (justifying dismissal) requires also that the disobedience must be ‘wilful’:

‘… I do, however, think (following the passages which I have already cited) that one act of disobedience or misconduct can justify dismissal only if it is of a nature which goes to show (in effect) that the servant is repudiating the contract, or one of its essential conditions; and for that reason, therefore, I think that one finds in the passages which I have read that the disobedience must at least have the quality that it is “wilful”: it does (in other words) connote a deliberate flouting of the essential contractual conditions (P288).’

In Concut Pty Ltd v Worrell (2000) 103 IR 160, His Honour, Kirby J, dealt with the ordinary relationship of the employer and employee at common law and said at para [51]:

‘The ordinary relationship of employer and employee at common law is one importing implied duties of loyalty, honesty, confidentiality and mutual trust. At common law:

“conduct which in respect of important matters is incompatible with the fulfilment of an employee’s duty, or involves an opposition, or conflict between his interest and his duty to his employer, or impedes the faithful performance of his obligations, or is destructive of the necessary confidence between employer and employee, is a ground of dismissal. …[T]he conduct of the employee must itself involve the incompatibility, conflict, or impediment, or be destructive of confidence. An actual repugnance between his acts and his relationship must be found. It is not enough that ground for uneasiness as to its future conduct arises.”

In the present case, the findings at trial went beyond mere uneasiness as to the future. They necessitated, or at least warranted, a conclusion that the “confidence” essential to the relationship of employer and employee had been destroyed. Instead of pursuing the interests of the company and its shareholders, the employee had pursued his own private interests. Not only was the employee in breach of his duty of fidelity and trust owed to the employer, he had remained in breach of that duty to the date of the trial. Until that time he had not accounted for the benefits wrongly appropriated by him. Indeed, he had denied any wrongful appropriation. The issue so tendered at the trial was determined against the employee. He was then subject to the employer’s counter-claim for an order to make a refund. Such order was duly made at trial. It was not contested on appeal. Given his senior status in the company’s service and the nature and extent of the misconduct disclosed in the evidence and accepted by the primary judge, it was open to him to find that the employee had undermined the confidence essential to the ongoing relationship of employment. Prima facie, this had afforded a legal justification for the employee’s summary dismissal.

It is, however, only the exceptional circumstances that an ordinary employer is entitled at common law to dismiss an employee summarily. Whatever the position may be in relation to ‘isolated’ acts of negligence, incompetence or unsuitability, it cannot be disputed (statute or express contractual provision aside) that acts of dishonesty or similar conduct destructive of the mutual trust between the employer and employee, once discovered, ordinarily fall within the class of conduct which, without more, authorises summary dismissal. Exceptions to this general position may exist for trivial breaches of the express or implied terms of the contract of employment. Other exceptions may arise where the breaches are ancient in time and where they may have been waived in the past, although known to the employer. Some breaches may be judged irrelevant to the duties of the particular employee and an ongoing relationship with the employer. But these exceptional cases apart, the establishment of important, relevant instances of misconduct, such as dishonesty on the part of an employee like Mr Wells, will normally afford legal justification for summary dismissal. Such a case will be classified as amounting to a relevant repudiation or renunciation by the employee of the employment contract, thus warranting summary dismissal.’

In cases of summary dismissal, the onus rests on the respondent to prove, to the Commission’s satisfaction, that the misconduct, has in fact, occurred. This is why I have adopted the practice of requiring the employer to file and serve its evidence first when I issue directions in preparation for a serious misconduct unfair dismissal case (as I did in this case). While this evidentiary onus must be discharged on the civil onus of proof (on the balance of probabilities); Briginshaw v Briginshaw [1938] HCA 34; (1938) 60 CLR 336 (‘Briginshaw’), the more serious the allegation, the higher the burden on the employer to prove the allegation. In Neat Holdings Pty Ltd v Karajan Holdings Pty Ltd (1992) 110 ALR 449, the High Court said:

‘The ordinary standard of proof required of a party who bears the onus in civil litigation in this country is proof on the balance of probabilities. That remains so even where the matter to be proved involves criminal conduct or fraud. On the other hand, the strength of the evidence necessary to establish a fact or facts on the balance of probabilities may vary according to the nature of what it is sought to prove. Thus, authoritative statements have often been made to the effect that clear proof is necessary “where so serious a matter as fraud is to be found”. Statements to that effect should not, however, be understood as directed to the standard of proof. Rather, they should be understood as merely reflecting a conventional perception that members of our society do not ordinarily engage in fraudulent or criminal conduct and a judicial approach that a court should not lightly make a finding that, on the balance of probabilities, a party to civil litigation has been guilty of such conduct.’ (footnotes omitted)

That the Commission, for itself, must be satisfied that the misconduct occurred, is well established by the authorities of the Commission and its predecessors. In King v Freshmore (Vic) Pty Ltd [2000] AIRC 1019, a Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (‘AIRC’) 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.’ (my emphasis)

Even accepting that a finding of serious or ‘grave’ misconduct was open to Mr Skry, it must not be confused with the statutory language and the relevant tests to be applied. The statute still requires the Commission to find that there was, or was not, a valid reason for dismissal (s 387(a)). In Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology v Asher [2010] FWAFB 1200, a Full Bench of Fair Work Australia (as the Commission then was) held at para [16]:

‘[16] In the circumstances of this matter the University purported to terminate Dr Asher’s employment for serious misconduct within the meaning of that term in the University’s enterprise agreement. If it successfully established that Dr Asher had engaged in serious misconduct it would necessarily follow that there was a valid reason for the dismissal. However, the converse is not true. As established by Annetta, the question that needed to be considered was whether there was a “valid reason” in the Selvachandran sense – whether the reason was sound, defensible or well founded. Whether it also amounted to serious misconduct may well be a factor relating to the overall characterisation of the termination but it was not an essential requirement in the determination of whether a valid reason exists.’

What is the meaning of ‘harsh, unjust or unreasonable’?

I earlier set out at para [103] the matters the Commission is required to take into account under s 387 of the Act when determining this question. I commence with ‘valid’ reason.

The meaning of ‘valid reason’ in s 387(a) is found in the judgement of North J in Selvachandran v Peterson Plastics Pty Ltd (1995) 62 IR 371 (‘Selvachandran’). This meaning has been considered and applied by members of the Commission and its predecessors for many years. For example, in Rode v Burwood Mitsubishi Print R4471, a Full Bench of the AIRC (including by reference to Selvachandran), discussed the meaning of ‘valid reason’ in the context of the relevant provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996. The following is an extract from the Full Bench’s decision at para [17]-[19]:

[17] In relation to the meaning of “valid reason” the following remarks of Northrop J in Selvachandran v Peteron Plastics Pty Ltd are relevant:

“Section 170DE(1) refers to a ‘valid reason, or valid reasons’, but the Act does not give a meaning to those phrases or the adjective ‘valid’. A reference to dictionaries shows that the word ‘valid’ has a number of different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. In The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, the relevant meaning given is: ‘2. Of an argument, assertion, objection, etc; well founded and applicable, sound, defensible: Effective, having some force, pertinency, or value.’ In The Macquarie Dictionary the relevant meaning is ‘sound, just or wellfounded; a valid reason’.

In its context in s 170DE(1), the adjective ‘valid’ should be given the meaning of sound, defensible or wellfounded. 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 reason 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 each treated fairly, see what was said by Wilcox CJ in Gibson v Bosmac Pty Ltd, when considering the construction and application of a s 170DC.”

[18] While Selvachandran was decided under the former statutory scheme the above observations remain relevant in the context of s.170CG(3)(a). A valid reason is one which is sound, defensible or well founded. A reason for termination which is capricious, fanciful, spiteful or prejudiced is not a valid reason for the purpose of s.170CG(3)(a).

[19] We agree with the appellant’s submission that in order to constitute a valid reason within the meaning of s.170CG(3)(a) the reason for termination must be defensible or justifiable on an objective analysis of the relevant facts. It is not sufficient for an employer to simply show that he or she acted in the belief that the termination was for a valid reason.

See also: Nettleford v Kym Smoker Pty Ltd (1996) 69 IR 370.

In B, C and D v Australian Postal Corporation, a majority of the Full Bench (Lawler VP and Cribb C) dealt with breaches by a number of employees of Australia Post’s IT policies, in respect to the sending, receiving and sharing of pornographic material. The majority said at paras [34] to [35]:

‘[34] In considering whether there was a valid reason for a dismissal under s.387(a), the reason(s) being considered are the employer’s reason(s). In a misconduct case, the Commission is concerned with whether the misconduct in fact occurred, not with whether the employer has reasonable grounds to believe that it occurred (eg. Yew v ACI Glass Packaging Pty Ltd (1996) 71 IR 201, Sherman v Peabody Coal Ltd (1998) 88 IR 408; Australian Meat Holdings Pty Ltd v McLauchlan (1998) 84 IR 1).

[35] Subject to that, as indicated by Northrop J in Selvachandran, “valid reason” is assessed from the perspective of the employer and by reference to the acts or omissions that constitute the alleged misconduct on which the employer relied, considered in isolation from the broader context in which they occurred. It is the reason of the employer, assessed from the perspective of the employer, that must be a “valid reason” where “valid” has its ordinary meaning of “sound, defensible or well founded”. As Northrop J noted, the requirement for a valid reason “should not impose a severe barrier to the right of an employer to dismiss an employee”.’

In my judgement, even accepting the respondent’s evidence at its highest, the applicant’s behaviour could not be characterised as serious or ‘grave’ misconduct. At the relevant time, Mr Skry did not identify specific behaviour about which he was concerned. Indeed, he was unaware of some of this alleged behaviour at the time. His allegations were non-specific generalities. The termination letter did not elaborate on the reasons for the applicant’s dismissal and in those circumstances, it is not open to conclude that there was a valid reason for the applicant’s dismissal. That is not to say that after proper counselling and clear warnings and without a change in behaviour, that a dismissal on notice, may have been appropriate; but those circumstances do not arise in this case.

Rojas v Beacon Products Pty Ltd  [2018] FWC 4317 delivered 16 August 2018 per Sams DP