Employee dismissed for cruelty to animals: the importance of getting the process right

December 08 2015

Employers may find some comfort in a recent decision of the Employment Court¹ where an employee was denied financial remedies from his employer because his cruelty to animals resulted in an unjustified dismissal.

Whilst the outcome was favourable to the employer, the case highlights the cost of defending a personal grievance claim and the importance of getting the process right when dismissing an employee.

A brief history of the case is:

  1. The incident which gave rise to the personal grievance occurred in October 2013
  2. The case came before the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) in August 2014
  3. The ERA awarded the employee $7,825. This comprised three months’ wages plus $5,000 compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings, reduced by 50% because of the employee’s contributory conduct
  4. The ERA ordered the employer to pay $2,750 to the employee as a contribution towards his costs along with the $71.56 lodgement fee (although the employee’s legal costs exceeded $3,500)
  5. The decision was appealed to the Employment Court and the court released its decision on the appeal in August 2015
  6. The court held that the employee was not entitled to an award for lost remuneration as the decision to dismiss was substantively justified, nor an award for compensation as the employee contributed 100% to his own dismissal, and
  7. The court set aside the ERA’s order that the employer pay the employee’s costs and, instead, ordered the employee to pay $1,750 to the employer for its costs in the ERA.

Some two years after the employer dismissed the employee for cruelty to animals the employer ended up with an award of $1,750, a large legal bill and an invaluable lesson on the importance of getting the process right when dismissing an employee.

What went wrong? The ERA and the court held that the employer was justified in dismissing the employee for animal cruelty. However, the critical factor was the employer’s failure to provide the employee with witness statements during the disciplinary process.

If witness statements had been provided to the employee, the employee may have been persuaded not to deny the allegations of animal cruelty. This was critical as the major factor in the decision to dismiss was that the employee failed to admit what he had done. The court agreed with the ERA but found that, even if the statements were provided, the employee would have been dismissed anyway.

¹Waterford Holdings Limited v Nathan Morunga NZEmpC Christchurch [2015] NZEmpC 132 [3 August 2015]

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