Case law updates

No investigation leads to Unfair Dismissal ruling

A Tribunal has awarded a lecturer accused of sending “aggressive” messages to colleagues £15,000 for unfair dismissal as there had not been a proper investigation into the allegations made against him. It said there had not been even the  “beginning of an investigation” into a number of allegations made against Dr Binoy Sobnack by his employer, Loughborough University.

Sobnack started work at the University in 1999, and in 2002 took up an ancillary role as a warden of a students’ halls of residence. It was in this role that two colleagues raised complaints against Sobnack for his manner of communication.

In June 2018, a volunteer sub-warden raised concerns after he was told by Sobnack that leaving his role would be “the best thing to happen to the hall”. Although the head of student services, Dr Manuel Alonso, told Sobnack this behaviour was “entirely unnecessary and unprofessional”, no further action was taken.

In May 2019 a further complaint was lodged by another a volunteer sub-warden who alleged Sobnack had accused her of trying to delay her start date “to avoid carrying out her duties”. Sobnack allegedly had not believed her when she tried to explain her circumstances and had then sent her an aggressive text message in a group chat with all the sub-wardens. The University’s head of legal services carried out a formal investigation into this complaint, but did not identify sufficient evidence to support an allegation of bullying and harassment.

Then in October 2019, another sub-warden, Ms Doma, made a complaint about Sobnack regarding his conduct. This was passed on to Alonso who met with Doma, who told him that Sobnack’s behaviour and communication style was “aggressive and confrontational”, and that he was trying to control her whereabouts, even when she was not on duty. She shared a number of text messages with Alonso in which Sobnack was tried to check on a particular student’s welfare regardless of whether Doma  was on duty. However Doma was forbidden to work more than 20 hours per week under the terms of her visa week and alleged that Sobnack had asked her to work in excess of those hours but not to record them.

Alonso believed the allegations to be “strikingly similar” to the previous complaints, felt he could no longer have any trust and confidence in Sobnack, and discharged him from the role of warden. Following a meeting Sobnack was given a term’s notice, with no opportunity to appeal.

In the ruling the Tribunal noted that “never even occurred to [Alonso] that most of the previous allegations …were found not to be proven,” and had not resulted in any disciplinary process or sanction. It said Doma’s allegations “were just that – allegations”, and pointed out that the contract of wardenship prescribed a process for dealing with disciplinary matters that was not followed. The judgement added that while Alonso genuinely believed an investigation would serve no purpose, “no reasonable employer reflecting on those matters would have dismissed there and then”.

Sobnack’s award was reduced by 25 per cent because of his own contribution to the  dismissal, with the Tribunal describing Sobnack’s message to Doma as “brusque, blunt and unnecessarily aggressive in tone”.