Breach of Contract
22 July 2015
Williams v Leeds United Football Club
The High Court has held that Leeds United were legitimately entitled to dismiss one of their employees for a breach of contract, despite it being discovered over five years after it had occurred.
Mr Williams, the club’s Technical Director, had never received a written contract of employment. His terms were agreed verbally with the Chairman in August 2006. Among these terms was an entitlement to 12 months’ notice. In 2013, the club decided to restructure, but were reluctant to pay Mr Williams the 12 months’ of notice pay he was entitled to. They instructed a firm of forensic investigators to investigate Mr Williams in an active attempt to unearth evidence of gross misconduct. It was discovered that Mr Williams had, in March 2008, received and forwarded pornographic material from his work email account. The club deemed this to be a repudiatory breach of contract and he was summarily dismissed.
Mr Williams brought a claim for damages, but his claim was dismissed by the court. The court took into account the senior position held by Mr Williams, the importance of the club’s reputation to its business model and the fact that the images, by Mr Williams’ own admission, were capable of causing offence. Although the emails were not discovered until five years after they had been sent, the court considered that Mr Williams’ conduct was sufficiently serious to amount to a repudiatory breach when it was discovered by the club.
Whilst a “fishing exercise” conducted by an employer in an effort to find misconduct will usually be frowned upon by a court or tribunal, the senior position Mr Williams held and the high profile of the employer were both key factors in this case. Interestingly, it was noted that had the employer acted in any way to ‘affirm’ the contract after finding out about the email, the outcome would have been significantly different. Affirmation of the contract would have negated the ability of the club to rely on the breach and the 12 months’ notice would have been payable.
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