Last month, an accomplished HR manager at a ‘mega-merged’ NHS trust won her claim for unfair dismissal. The trust was restructuring as part of Mid and South Essex University Hospitals Group.

This result is in spite of the fact that the manager, Cathrona Leeke of Mid Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust failed to apply for a suitable alternative post.

Notably, two of her colleagues’ cases for unfair dismissal failed, with a judge claiming that they did not accept alternative roles to trigger large redundancy payments.

Partial success

Ms. Leeke partially succeeded in the case, which was held at East London Employment Tribunal in July of this year. It was determined at the tribunal that any award to Ms Leeke made at a remedy hearing would be reduced by 50%.

This is in light of the assertion that Leeke had contributed to her situation because she had turned down a senior HR lead role and not applied for an interim head of HR role.

In January of this year, the trust lost a separate claim against a director whose redundancy was mishandled as part of the same merger process.

Pay discrepancy

Ms Leeke and her two colleagues (also HR managers) had submitted a joint grievance to group chief executive Clare Panniker in 2017 after they found out that their equivalents at Southend and Basildon were better paid more.

A grievance was also raised that the jobs they were later offered were not equivalent to the ones they currently held and did not include the word “manager”. A panel was convened with an external HR director in 2018 who advised that the jobs were, indeed, equivalent.

Unreasonable grounds

In light of the external director’s findings, Claire Panniker determined that the three HR managers’ grounds for refusing alternative jobs were unreasonable, and that as such they were not entitled to redundancy payments.

However, Panniker was in favour of keeping Leeke and the other HR heads, Sarah Stewart and Catriona Stevenson, employed by the trust and informed them of this.

The tribunal also heard that Stewart and Stevenson had already secured other jobs.

Predetermined dismissals

The presiding Judge Benjimin Burgher determined that: “The claimants believed that the consultation process [around the new structure] was a sham and that their dismissals were predetermined.”... “[They] did not approach the consultation process with a co-operative mindset. Matters may have turned out very differently had they done so.”

The judge reaffirmed claims that the roles offered to the three were equivalent stating that “the offer of the senior HR lead role to the claimants was suitable alternative work. It was offered on the same grade, pay, location and hours as their previous roles. As far as status was concerned, the role was at a comparable level and although their previous specific duties were not necessary going forward, their skills and experience in a more expansive group role was.”

“Mrs Leeke was conflicted, she wished to remain working in the trust but did not wish to break ranks from her close working team. To have done so would have undermined their claims for substantial redundancy payments.”

The difference in claims

So, why was Leeke’s claim partially successful when Steward and Stevenson’s claims failed? The difference lies in the fact that Steward and Stevenson had been offered the opportunity to apply for equivalent alternative work but had already taken jobs elsewhere.

Leeke, on the other hand, demonstrated to the tribunal her desire to stay at the trust, despite not applying for the equivalent senior HR role. Because she had been made fully aware of some opportunities her claim for unfair dismissal was successful.

The remedy hearing concerning Leeke’s claim took place on the 2nd August.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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