Case law updates

Failure to fix ‘breakdown of working relationships’ led to unfair dismissal

An Employment Appeal Tribunal has ruled that a brain surgeon was unfairly dismissed after he was prevented from returning to work following a sabbatical in the Cayman Islands.

James Akinwunmi made complaints that other consultants were fraudulently claiming double pay. However the complaints were ignored by his employer, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust. Having “blown the whistle” Akinwunmi took unpaid sabbatical leave. Although this was been approved by the Trust, it then accused him of “fleeing” to the Cayman Islands – where he has a practice – causing him to miss important meetings. Akinwunmi was subsequently dismissed in October 2014.

Akinwunmi argued that the hostile working environment that followed once he had blown the whistle made it impossible for him to return to work, and that his working relationships had been worsened by constant questioning over claims he had accidentally removed a healthy portion of a patient’s brain during surgery (despite a  2011 High Court ruling that found this to have been a one-off mistake that should not have triggered restrictions on his practice).

Some of Akinwunmi’s fellow consultants had also claimed that he had issued threats of violence against them, although no evidence was found to support these claims. Akinwunmi felt that it would be unsafe for him and his patients were he to return to work.

Akinwunmi won his claim for unfair dismissal in 2016, although claims of detriment as a result of whistleblowing and victimisation on race grounds were rejected.

On appeal to the ET the trust argued that the ruling of unfair dismissal was a “perverse decision” claiming that Akinwunmi had contributed to his dismissal by being off work for nearly two years.

The EAT disagreed and upheld the finding of unfair dismissal. It supported the tribunal’s view that the Trust should have taken responsibility for improving the working environment. It had known about the breakdown of working relationships for a long time and there was no evidence it had made any effort to improve them.