Williams v Leeds United Football Club: repudiatory breach of contract
Head of Employment Law, Ted Flanagan, takes a closer look at the decision in Williams v Leeds United Football Club and what it means for employers.
Mr Williams was the Technical Director at Leeds United until he was made redundant in July 2013. At the time the Club was already preparing to dispute his notice period on, in reality, no other grounds other than that they didn’t want to pay out a figure approaching £200,000.
Having made him redundant, the Club admitted they then had forensic investigators go through everything he had ever done on the IT system to see if they could find anything to sack him for.
Mr Williams was not the only person receiving such treatment. In his case, however, the Club did find a pornographic email which he had sent internally to a female subordinate colleague and externally to two friends some five years earlier. This, they contended, was gross misconduct and fundamental breach of contract entitling them to terminate immediately rather than continuing to pay him for what would in all likelihood have been twelve months.
Mr Williams didn’t dispute the redundancy but sued for the notice pay. This being a breach of contract claim, it was brought in the High Court – breach of contract claims can only be for up to £25,000 in the Tribunal.
He lost his case because the Club were entitled to treat his actions as grounds for dismissal. It didn’t matter that they had already given him notice on another ground. Nor did it matter that they openly admitted they had been desperately hunting about for any reason to dismiss him (and indeed others).
What this means for you
This shows there’s no date beyond which misconduct becomes an issue an employer can do nothing about. Even though the email was five years old, LUFC didn’t know about it until they went looking for it.
Cynical employers will also spot the potential to use this approach in cases where they are keen to save money. Traditionally, it’s the use of the IT system and expense claims which are the most fertile hunting grounds.
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