Keystone Law’s employment partner Julie Morris has successfully advised the Claimant in a sex discrimination claim before the Leeds Employment Tribunal against her former employer, VolkerRail Limited. At a remedies hearing, the Claimant was awarded approximately £420,000 in damages.

The Claimant was subjected to persistent unwanted romantic advances, and other inappropriate conduct, by her line manager. She gave notice of resignation and then raised a grievance about his treatment of her, to be investigated during her notice period. VolkerRail Limited found in its grievance response that whilst his conduct had been “inappropriate”, it was not sexual harassment. The Claimant appealed that decision internally but the appeal outcome still found that there was no sexual harassment. During that process, the Claimant sought to withdraw her resignation and remain in employment, but VolkerRail Limited refused to permit her to do so and brought her employment to an end.

The Claimant brought a claim before the Employment Tribunal regarding allegations of sexual harassment and victimisation by VolkerRail Limited, which, unusually, went all the way to a remedies hearing. The Employment Tribunal found that whilst her manager’s conduct did satisfy the definition of sexual harassment, that part of her claim was out of time. However, it went on to find that the way in which VolkerRail Limited conducted the grievance and appeal process amounted to sexual harassment in itself, and that its refusal to allow her to withdraw her resignation constituted victimisation (i.e. it was done because she had raised a complaint of discrimination).

The Tribunal stated that “in our judgment, the [grievance hearers] placed themselves in denial about the second respondent’s undoubted romantic conduct and its influence on other behaviours. It is a very rare case where there are original allegations of harassment or discrimination, and a grievance or appeal process is also found to be discriminatory or harassing, rather than just unreasonable or poor”. It went on to say, further, of that process: “The purpose appears to be to exculpate the second respondent from the stigma of a finding of sexual harassment by all and any means, whether by attributing blame to the claimant or comparing his behaviour to the playground”. The Tribunal went on to state, in respect of the hearing of the appeal, that “[the appeal hearer] subconsciously adopted a sex-related stereotype to find against the claimant” and that in doing so, he engaged in sexual harassment.

VolkerRail Limited sought to appeal the decision to the Employment Appeal Tribunal but its appeal was struck out. In a remedies hearing in July of this year, the Respondent sought to argue that the Claimant should be entitled to minimal compensation, but the Employment Tribunal awarded the Claimant very substantial damages, both in respect of her financial losses and in respect of the injuries to her feelings and health that she had suffered as a result of VolkerRail Limited’s treatment of her.

Julie Morris worked alongside barrister John Horan of Cloisters Chambers and Michael White of 11 King’s Bench Walk on this claim.

The full judgment can be found here.

Julie Morris, the Claimant’s solicitor, said:

“This is a significant judgment because the Tribunal made the unusual finding that the way in which VolkerRail Limited conducted the grievance and appeal process was, in itself, sexual harassment. The Claimant was ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and the jointly instructed medical expert concluded that that injury was caused not by the original sexual harassment but by the way in which the grievance and appeal were conducted and the Respondent’s refusal to allow her to remain in employment.

“The Tribunal accepted the view of the medical expert and ultimately, awarded more than four hundred thousand pounds to the Claimant, representing almost 6 years’ financial loss plus awards for her injuries. The Claimant has not been able to work since she left the employment of the Respondent in 2020 and it will take a long time for her health to recover, if it ever does.

“This case offers a salutary lesson for any employer considering following a perfunctory, inadequate or biased grievance process and it shows the importance of those investigating grievances, to properly understand the importance of the job they are tasked to do, to be trained accordingly and to investigate with an open mind.”

An anonymity order is in place in this case prohibiting the identification of the Claimant and the Second Respondent (her manager).

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