Unfair dismissals and serious misconduct

Sec 12 of the Fair Work Act 2009 provides that “serious misconduct has the meaning prescribed by the regulations.

Regulation 1.07 provides

 

“FAIR WORK REGULATIONS 2009 – REG 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.

(4)  Subregulation (3) does not apply if the employee is able to show that, in the circumstances, the conduct engaged in by the employee was not conduct that made employment in the period of notice unreasonable.

(5)  For paragraph (3)(b), an employee is taken to be intoxicated if the employee’s faculties are, by reason of the employee being under the influence of intoxicating liquor or a drug (except a drug administered by, or taken in accordance with the directions of, a person lawfully authorised to administer the drug), so impaired that the employee is unfit to be entrusted with the employee’s duties or with any duty that the employee may be called upon to perform.”

 

The Small Business Fair Dismissal Codes provides that

“Summary dismissal

It is fair for an employer to dismiss an employee without notice or warning when the employer believes on reasonable grounds that the employee’s conduct is sufficiently serious to justify immediate dismissal. Serious misconduct includes theft, fraud, violence and serious breaches of occupational health and safety procedures. For a dismissal to be deemed fair it is sufficient, though not essential, that an allegation of theft, fraud or violence be reported to the police. Of course, the employer must have reasonable grounds for making the report.”

So far so good? Well, you could be excused from the foregoing for believing that the regulations therefore define what is meant by the expression “serious misconduct”, which has always been a source of unfair dismissal cases.

At common law, a contract of employment could always be terminated summarily ie instantly and without notice or pay in lieu if the employee was guilty of serious misconduct with a relevant link to the employment context. And furthermore there is a serious body of case law which exists about this proposition.

However everything is not as it appear to be because those who drafted the Fair Work Act, and I particular, the provisions which deal with “serious misconduct” were lazy and the Fair Work Commission has let rip.

Here is an example.

“It may be comfortably assumed that Mr Zafiropoulos relied on Reg 1.07(3)(a)(ii) (‘fraud’). Mr Zafiropoulos claimed he was given advice by the FWO that falsification of time sheets is a matter that gives rise to instant dismissal. For my own part, I doubt the FWO would give any definitive advice as to justification for summary dismissal, without knowing all the relevant circumstances (which it would obviously not). That said, reliance on the Regulation or advice from the FWO 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)

[42] 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 terms). 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.’

[43] 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).’

[44] 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.’

[45] 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)

[46] 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 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)

[47] Even accepting that a finding of serious misconduct was open to Mr Zafiropoulos, 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.’

So you be the judge.

Is the common law concept of serious misconduct relevant to the unfair dismissal regime in Australia?

Is “serious misconduct” for testing whether there is a valid reason for dismissal the common law test, or the test defined by the regulations?

Is the “serious misconduct test” in the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code relevant to dismissals by non small business employers?

 

 

McGlashan v The Entrance Discount Variety Pty Ltd (2018) FWC 3284 delivered 29 June 2018 per Sams DP