Employee dismissed for gross misconduct for email sent over 5 years ago
In Williams v Leeds United Football Club (LUFC) the High Court held an employer was permitted to dismiss an employee who was guilty of gross misconduct that took place five years previously.
Williams was employed by LUFC as a technical director in 2006 and was paid a generous salary of £200,000. His employment contract also provided for a significant 12 month notice period.
In 2013 LUFC were beginning a reorganisation exercise and began looking for ways to dismiss senior members of staff without having to pay them their significant notice periods. Managing officers initiated investigations into senior managers and directors, including Williams, to ascertain whether they could dismiss them on the grounds of gross misconduct. LUFC even went to the lengths to hire the services of a firm of forensic investigators, to thoroughly examine their email system.
On 22 July 2013 all payments were stopped to Williams by LUFC, in breach of his employment contract. On 24 July the forensic investigators reported that they had discovered that in 2008 Williams had received pornographic images via email. Williams had then forwarded the pornographic images to a female junior colleague and two external contacts. This had provided LUFC with the ideal opportunity to dismiss Williams.
As a result of the discovery, Williams was invited to attend a disciplinary hearing on 29 July 2013. When Williams failed to attend the hearing, LUFC summarily dismissed him for gross misconduct the next day. Williams was not entitled to his 12 months notice and LUFC had therefore avoided having to pay him £200,000.
Williams pursued a claim in the High Court, stating that he had been wrongly dismissed and should be entitled to 12 months’ salary. The High Court held that Williams’ conduct was sufficiently serious to warrant gross misconduct and LUFC were therefore entitled to treat his actions as a repudiation of his employment contract. Despite the 5 year delay, LUFC were entitled to take action on the gross misconduct when it was discovered. The High Court held that it did not matter that LUFC were looking to let Williams go or that they had stopped his salary prior to the discovery.
The decision is evidently favourable to the employer and could potentially set a precedent for future employers who are looking to downsize and restructure. It is worth noting that this case related to a breach of contract claim and it is unclear whether the decision would have been any different, had it been a claim for unfair dismissal.
If you are an employer and require advice on what constitutes gross misconduct and what steps should be taken, please contact Kate Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org.