Unfair dismissal; what is a valid reason?

What is a valid reason for dismissal? Here is an extract from a decision of the Fair Work Commission in an unfair dismissal case which sets out the Commission’s approach to determining one of the vital questions in such a case, namely whether there was a valid reason for the termination of employment.

“In Container Terminals Australia Limited v Toby [2000] Print S8434, a Full Bench said ‘In our view, the consideration of whether there was a valid reason for termination is a separate issue from the determination of whether a termination was harsh, unjust or unreasonable’.

Northrop J in Selvachandran v Peteron Plastics Pty Ltd (1995) 62 IR 371 said:

“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 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 …”

In Parmalat Food Products Pty Ltd v Wililo, [2011] FWAFB 1166, the Full Bench held:

“The existence of a valid reason is a very important consideration in any unfair dismissal case. The absence of a valid reason will almost invariably render the termination unfair. The finding of a valid reason is a very important consideration in establishing the fairness of a termination. Having found a valid reason for termination amounting to serious misconduct and compliance with the statutory requirements for procedural fairness it would only be if significant mitigating factors are present that a conclusion of harshness is open.”

The Full Bench majority in B, C and D v Australian Postal Corporation T/A Australia Post [2013] FWCFB 6191 provides a useful summary of the approach to be taken by the Commission in weighing the factors to be considered under s.387:

“[20] Northrop J’s reasoning anticipated the reasoning of the High Court in Victoria v Commonwealth – that s.170DE(2) by its operation could render invalid a reason that would otherwise have been a valid reason. The fact that some dismissals are “harsh, unjust or unreasonable” notwithstanding the existence of a “valid reason” means that the class of dismissals that are “harsh, unjust or unreasonable” is greater than the class of dismissals where there is no “valid reason” for the dismissal.

[21] Section 387 specifies a range of matters that must be considered in each case. Section 387(h) requires consideration of “any other matters that FWA considers relevant”. In any given case, there will be a range of matters, beyond those specified in s.387(a) to (g), that rationally bear upon whether the dismissal is “harsh, unjust or unreasonable” and thus are “relevant matters” that must be considered pursuant to s.387(h).

[22] Often it will not make any difference to the ultimate outcome whether a particular circumstance is considered pursuant to s.387(a) in determining whether there is a valid reason, or as a relevant matter pursuant to s.387(h), leading to the ultimate determination of whether the dismissal was “harsh, unjust or unreasonable”. However, in some cases it may matter greatly. That will tend to be so when the particular misconduct, shorn of the personal circumstances of the employee and the broader context beyond the particular acts or omissions that are said to constitute the misconduct, is clearly a matter that a reasonable employer is entitled to take seriously. This is such a case.

[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”.

[36] A failure to comply with a lawful and reasonable policy is a breach of the fundamental term of the contract of employment that obliges employees to comply with the lawful and reasonable directions of the employer. In this way, a substantial and wilful breach of a policy will often, if not usually, constitute a “valid reason” for dismissal.
. . .

[58] Reaching an overall determination of whether a given dismissal was “harsh, unjust or unreasonable” notwithstanding the existence of a “valid reason” involves a weighing process. The Commission is required to consider all of the circumstances of the case, having particular regard to the matters specified in s.387, and then weigh:

(i) the gravity of the misconduct and other circumstances weighing in favour of the dismissal not being harsh, unjust or unreasonable;

against

(ii) the mitigating circumstances and other relevant matters that may properly be brought to account as weighing against a finding that dismissal was a fair and proportionate response to the particular misconduct.”

I respectfully adopt this approach.

Ultimately, there was not really a contest as to the facts, as Mr Tyack conceded. The Applicant was given an instruction to clean up on Saturday 15 February. He was not able to fully carry it out for reasons beyond his control and which were, I find, reasonable. The instruction was repeated on the Sunday. I find that the Applicant complied later that day, as soon as he reasonably could, given the staffing restrictions that applied. No inquiry as to the full circumstances was carried out by the owner. The direction could not, therefore, be considered reasonable. In any event the Applicant complied as soon as it was reasonable for him to do so. I find that there was no valid reason for the dismissal.

Dismissal was not an appropriate sanction even if the owner was correct in deciding that there was some delay in carrying out his instruction.”