Peters v Rock Chemicals Ltd – employee’s dismissal was due to age discrimination

In the case of Peters v Rock Chemicals Limited t/a Rock Oil Company 2404460/2015 the Employment Tribunal held that the dismissal of a 67-year-old employee was because of his age and not because of allegations that he was responsible for a failure to pay PAYE to HMRC.

Mr Peters commenced employment with Rock Chemicals Limited (“Rock Chemicals”) in 1998 as company accountant. His principal responsibility was to maintain the company accounts. He was also responsible for line managing a number of members of staff, including Ms Fiona Wright; Ms Fiona Wright was the sister of Charles Hewitt (Chairman of Rock Chemicals) and aunt to Greg Hewitt (Managing Director of Rock Chemicals). Ms Wright was responsible as Finance Manager for the receipt and payment of monies for the company.

In 2009, when Mr Peters was 62, there were discussions between Charles Hewitt and Mr Peters as to when he might retire; Mr Peters intimated that he might look to retire in 2011. Mr Peters did, however, not retire in 2011 but continued to work. In late 2011 a new employee, Mr Mullins started work with Rock Chemicals. In 2012 Mr Peters began to suspect that it was intended that Mr Mullins was to be his successor at the company, principally as Mr Mullins was introduced to the company’s bank as Mr Peters’ successor; Mr Peters’ relationship with Charles Hewitt, which was previously good, also started to deteriorate, with Mr Peters feeling that Mr Hewitt was ignoring .

In July 2012 Rock Chemicals was served with a penalty notice to the sum of £18,824.04 for late payment of PAYE. Charles Hewitt was extremely happy that the company had been served with a penalty notice, and Mr Peters was blamed for the penalty despite PAYE being Ms Wright’s area of responsibility. Mr Peters was in fact the only member of staff blamed for the PAYE penalty.

Various other allegations of poor performance were put to Mr Peters and he started to suffer from anxiety and stress. As a result of this he took his first period of certified sick leave from the company in March 2013. Later that month Rock Chemicals instructed  a medical practitioner to undertake a medical examination of Mr Peters, but the letter of instruction contained comments relating to Mr Peters’ age and his continuing ability to do his job. Rock Chemicals also failed to implement the recommendations of two medical reports regarding phasing Mr Peters back into the workplace and led to him about his bonus, as well as demanding the return of his company car and refusing to provide him with any information to allow him to respond to the allegations against him.

Mr Peters returned to work in December 2014 but was almost immediately upon his return to work subjected to a disciplinary investigation and dismissed on 14 January 2015, with one of the reasons for his dismissal being the serving of the penalty notice relating to PAYE. Other reasons for his dismissal included historical allegations that he had previously given an explanation for.

Mr Peters brought Employment Tribunal claims for unfair dismissal, age discrimination, and breach of contract. The claim came to the Manchester Employment Tribunal in October 2015 and the Employment Tribunal found in Mr Peter’s favour in all three heads of claim.

With regards to the unfair dismissal claim, the Employment Tribunal found that Rock Chemicals had pre-determined Mr Peters’ culpability for the conduct he was dismissed for, that the company had failed to carry out a reasonable investigation (in particular, it had failed to provide relevant requested documents to Mr Peters), and that Charles Hewitt, the dismissing officer, did not have a reasonable or genuine belief that Mr Peters was culpable of the allegations put to him.

With regards to the age discrimination claim, the Employment Tribunal found that Mr Peters’ dismissal and the conduct leading up to his dismissal were inextricably linked with Mr Peters’ age, finding that the events leading up to Mr Peters’ dismissal allowed an inference of age discrimination – an inference that Rock Chemicals could not rebut.

The Employment Tribunal also found that there had been a breach of contract in not paying Mr Peters his 2013 bonus. Rock Chemicals failed in a counter-claim against Mr Peters.

Chris Hadrill, a specialist employment solicitor at Redmans, commented on the case: “In the event of any allegations of misconduct employers should be careful to treat the relevant employees reasonably and to take measured steps that are in accordance with established disciplinary procedures – if the employer fails to treat the employee reasonably or deviates from accepted practice then this could lead to a finding of unfair dismissal or, even, a finding that such conduct constitutes an inference of discrimination (as in this case).”