Suspension of teacher accused of using unreasonable force against children held not to be a breach of employment contract
In March 2019, the Court of Appeal upheld a County Court decision that the suspension of a teacher in anticipation of a misconduct investigation was not a breach of the term of trust and confidence which is implied into all employment contracts.
In November 2012, Ms Agoreyo began working as a primary school teacher for the London Borough of Lambeth. She taught a class of up to 29 five and six year old children, two of which displayed extremely challenging behaviour. A few weeks into her employment it was alleged that Ms Agoreyo had used unreasonable force towards the two difficult children, including dragging them out of the classroom and along the corridor.
In December 2012, Ms Agoreyo was suspended so the school could investigate the allegations against her. After she was suspended, Ms Agoreyo resigned almost immediately and brought a County Court claim for breach of contract. She argued that there had been a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence because her suspension was not reasonable or necessary for the investigation to take place. She relied on earlier case law which suggested that suspending an employee unnecessarily can amount to an assumption of guilt and therefore undermine the fundamental duty of trust and confidence which all employers have towards their employees.
The County Court held that Ms Agoreyo had been suspended for a good reason and therefore there was no breach of contract. However, the High Court disagreed and found that the suspension had been a “knee jerk reaction” and that it was not a “neutral act”, so there had indeed been a breach of contract.
The Court of Appeal allowed the school’s appeal and restored the County Court Judgment. The Court of Appeal’s view was given that the school had wanted to safeguard the interests of young children, the Judge had been entitled to find that the school had a reasonable and proper cause to suspend Ms Agoreyo.
This was an important decision on when suspension is justified and when it may give rise to a constructive dismissal claim.
Tips for employers when considering employee suspension:
Whilst this decision looks like a victory for employers, cases regarding employee suspension are very fact specific and therefore there is no guarantee that a dispute such as this one would be found in the employer’s favour.
Employers should be conscious of stressing to the employee that suspension is not a disciplinary action. However, employers should also be wary that the employee may feel stigma attached to the suspension, regardless of any such assurances.
Employers may want to consider suspension as a last resort measure and make sure that the purpose of the suspension is made clear to the employee.