Case law updates

University criticised for “overly hasty” suspension

A Durham University employee who resigned after being wrongfully suspended for alleged grade tampering has won a case for unfair dismissal. In Dr Stothard vs Durham University, the employer suspended Dr Stothard – without properly explaining the details of the alleged offences – following a media investigation. This increased her pre-existing condition of colitis which prevented her from returning to work after her suspension.  As a result, with three distinct grievances also ignored, the tribunal found Dr Stothard to have been constructively dismissed, while also believing the employee to have been subject to disability discrimination.

The tribunal found that the dismissal was unfair as the claimant was put at a “substantial disadvantage” because of her disability, while ruling the suspension was an “overly hasty reaction in all circumstances”. Additionally, the tribunal believed that the allegations of grade tampering were “clearly calculated to seriously damage the relationship between employer and employee” and the damage was not avoided as the suspension was deemed a “neutral act”.  The tribunal believed a “very practical alternative” to the suspension would have been to ask for an explanation, rather than an immediate suspension.

Expert commentators have noted that the case underlines the importance of having solid legal reason and evidence before making a suspension, insisting it cannot be a knee-jerk reaction. While it is normal for employers to argue for a suspension to prevent the claimant tampering with evidence, their claims must be substantiated or face risk of damage in the relationship of trust and confidence.