High Court rules that suspension is not a “neutral act or default position”

In the case of Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth [2017] EWHC 2019 HC the High Court held that the suspension of a teacher was “knee-jerk” and in breach of contract, and that suspending employees was neither a “neutral act” nor should it be a “default position” for employers.

The facts in Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth

Ms Agoreyo commenced working for the London Borough of Lambeth as a primary school teacher in 2012. She had 15 years’ experience of teaching and had taught children with special educational needs; she had not, however, had any experience or training in teaching children with behavioural difficulties.

Ms Agoreyo’s class contained two pupils who had behavioural, emotional, and social difficulties. She had not been told that these pupils would be present in her class before she accepted the offer of employment from the borough. She started to experience problems with these two students and approached management at the school to discuss her concerns. She was told that she would receive additional support. However, before the support arrangements were put in place there were three separate incidents involving Ms Agoreyo and these pupils in which she considered it necessary to exercise a degree of physical force in order to ensure that the pupils complied with her instructions.

On 14 December 2012 management at the school informed Ms Agoreyo that she was being suspended with immediate effect on allegations that she had use inappropriate physical force against pupils. The letter of suspension stated that the suspension was a neutral action, that the purpose of the suspension was to allow the investigation to be fairly conducted, and that the suspension was simply precautionary in nature. Ms Agoreyo resigned on the day she was suspended and brought a claim for breach of contract in the county court.

The County Court’s decision

The County Court held that the school was entitled, and even bound, to suspend Ms Agoreyo on the basis that it had a legal duty to protect the children at the school pending an investigation into the allegations; in effect, there was a ‘reasonable and proper cause’ for her suspension. The County Court therefore found that there was no breach of contract by the school in suspending her and, further, held that the real reason for her resignation was that she was seeking to avoid a full investigation of the allegations against her (and not the suspension in and of itself).

Ms Agoreyo appealed against this decision to the High Court.

The High Court’s decision

The High Court upheld Ms Agoreyo’s appeal, holding that there was no “reasonable and proper” cause for Ms Agoreyo’s suspension as there had not been a reasonable investigation into the necessity of the suspension, Ms Agoreyo had not been consulted on her response to the allegations, and there is no evidence that consideration was given to any alternative to suspension prior to the decision to suspend being taken. The High Court therefore found that the decision to suspend had been a “knee-jerk” decision and was the default position, whereas careful consideration should have been given to the context of the incidents and the necessity for the suspension. The High Court therefore held that there had been a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence and that Ms Agoreyo had resigned in response to this breach, with the conclusion being that Ms Agoreyo had been constructively dismissed.

Our solicitors’ comments

Chris Hadrill, a specialist employment solicitor at Redmans, commented on the case: “Employers should be careful to ensure that when taking the decision whether (or not) to suspend employees they have (among other things) carefully consider what options available to them, the factual context justifying dismissal, and whether the employee has been allowed to put their version of events forward. A failure to establish reasonable and proper cause for suspending the employee could lead to a potentially successful constructive dismissal claim if the employee resigns as a result.”