In Williams v Leeds United Football Club the High Court has found that LUFC were entitled to summarily dismiss Gwyn Williams, a technical director of LUFC, for sending an email containing obscene and pornographic images.
This is despite the fact that the email was sent over five years previously and that LUFC were looking for a reason to dismiss the employee for gross misconduct.
Since June 2013, LUFC had been looking for a reason to dismiss a number of senior managers for gross misconduct (conduct so serious as to justify immediate summary dismissal without notice or payment in lieu of notice). They even went so far as to appoint forensic investigators to trawl through the LUFC email system.
By 23 July 2013, no evidence of misconduct by Williams had been discovered; however, due to a restructuring exercise, Williams was served notice of dismissal by reason of redundancy. Under his employment contract, Williams was entitled to 12 months’ notice.
LUFC were clearly not keen to pay Williams his chunky £200,000 salary during his notice, deciding on 22 July 2013 not to pay it, which (in the absence of dismissal for gross misconduct) they knew would be in breach of the employment contract.
LUFC had not yet given up their mission to find evidence of gross misconduct which would justify non-payment of notice pay. On 24 July 2013, LUFC (via their forensic investigators) discovered an email with the message ‘Looks like dirty Leeds!!’ containing ‘obscene and pornographic’ images of women received and forwarded by Williams over five years previously. LUFC dismissed Williams on 30 July 2013 for gross misconduct and his employment terminated with immediate effect.
Williams filed a breach of contract claim for wrongful dismissal (alleging that dismissal without notice was in breach of his employment contract and claiming damages for his unpaid notice) before the High Court, but he was unsuccessful. The Court concluded that the sending of the email was a breach of the implied contractual term of trust and confidence and was sufficiently serious to amount to gross misconduct for which dismissal with immediate effect without notice was justified.
A number of interesting points arise:-
• It did not matter that over five years’ had passed since the email had been sent (the misconduct was not considered to have been waived by LUFC because LUFC did not know of it until 24 July 2013 when it acted immediately).
• It did not matter that LUFC were looking for evidence of gross misconduct to justify dismissal without notice.
• It did not matter that LUFC had already taken the decision not to pay Williams’ salary during his notice period before it discovered the email.
• As this was a breach of contract claim, LUFC were able to rely on evidence of gross misconduct that they were not even aware of at the point of dismissal (LUFC believed that the email had been sent to one former colleague/friend of Williams and were unaware until after dismissal of two other recipients including, in particular, a junior female member of staff at LUFC).
The decision is surprisingly favourable on the employer in the circumstances, though it should be remembered that the claim was a breach of contract claim (and not an unfair dismissal claim).
All in all a tactical win for Leeds United Football Club.