Skip to content

Hybrid bullying/harassment and stress at work claim dismissed – Rory Holmes and Barbara Goddard (DAC Beachcroft Claims Ltd) act for the successful defendant



On 2 May 2024 HHJ Mitchell, sitting as a High Court Judge, handed down judgment in the case of Skrzypiec & Pawlak v The University of Exeter, in which he dismissed claims for psychiatric injury brought by two academics previously employed by the university.

Background

Professor Pawlak and Dr Skrzypiec, a married couple, worked within the university’s medical school as part of a neuroscience team researching formation of memory and emotion in the brain. Their research involved use of mice, which was subject to licence under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and strict regulation by the Home Office. Both academics worked alongside a lab manager (‘the lab manager’), whose responsibilities included health and safety and animal husbandry.

From 2013 inter-personal problems developed in the lab, which gave rise in 2015 to formal grievances/counter grievances – first from the lab manager and then shortly thereafter from Professor Pawlak. These grievances were investigated by the University’s HR department, which found: (i) a case to answer for Professor Pawlak, but; (ii) no case to answer for the lab manager. That disciplinary process culminated in a hearing in March 2016, at which limited adverse findings were made against Professor Pawlak. Recommendations were made for all lab members to undergo further training, with a view to restoring harmonious and constructive working relations.

Although Professor Pawlak and Dr Skrzypiec had some time off work during the currency of the disciplinary proceedings, both were able to return to work shortly thereafter and continue their research. However, sometime later in November 2017, Dr Skrzypiec was sadly diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and subsequently took ill-health retirement. Professor Pawlak continued to be employed by the university for several years, but ultimately took ill-health retirement in 2022 given his diagnoses of chronic depression/bi-polar disorder.

The claims

The claims were brought on three grounds, namely: (1) that Professor Pawlak/Dr Skrzypiec had been subject to alleged harassment from the lab manager contrary to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (‘the Act’); (2) that the disciplinary proceedings had been pursued in an allegedly negligent fashion, and; (3) that after their return to work in April 2016, the university had allegedly failed to take sufficient steps to avoid or alternatively reduce contact between Professor Pawlak/Dr Skrzypiec and the lab manager.

Dr Skrzypiec alleged that work events had accelerated the onset of her schizophrenia, and Professor Pawlak alleged that work events had materially contributed to causation of his psychiatric conditions. The claims were presented on the basis of nil residual earning capacity, and initially pleaded at in excess of £10 million, although reduced to circa £3 million by the point of updated schedules of loss. The court heard evidence from several senior academics and employees (both current and former), in addition to consultant psychiatrists instructed by all parties.

Liability

The allegations in relation to the allegedly negligent disciplinary proceedings were abandoned during the Trial. The university had taken care to ensure that Professor Pawlak was subject to occupational health (“OH”) input shortly before his disciplinary hearing, to determine whether he was fit to participate. That OH assessment concluded that he was indeed fit to participate, a position which Professor Pawlak initially agreed to before later seeking an adjournment of the disciplinary hearing due to several matters including alleged disability. Through their Counsel, Professor Pawlak/Dr Skrzypiec conceded before the second day of Trial that there was no foreseeable risk of injury arising from the mechanism of disciplinary proceedings, which would of course be required following established line of authority (e.g. Yapp v Foreign and Commonwealth Office [2014] EWCA 1512).

Some of the allegations of harassment were not capable of direct challenge by way of lay witness evidence, given that some of the key personnel were no longer employed by the university. However, the university had generated significant paperwork while managing the inter-personal problems, which meant that the court was able to scrutinise the retrospective accounts of Professor Pawlak/Dr Skrzypiec against the contemporaneous documents. Having heard evidence from Professor Pawlak/Dr Skrzypiec over three days, the court concluded that their recollection of events was inaccurate. Consequentially, HHJ Mitchell found that neither Professor Pawlak or Dr Skrzypiec were bullied or harassed contrary to the Act, and that limb of the claims failed.

The claims relating to the post-disciplinary period engaged familiar Hatton principles. After they returned to work in April 2016, Professor Pawlak/Dr Skrzypiec reported (both directly, and through their GP) that they considered themselves to be at risk of psychiatric injury in the event of further contact with the lab manager. On that basis, the court found that a foreseeable risk of injury by the mechanism of contact with the lab manager was established by May 2016.

On the issue of alleged breach, both claims failed in light of the court’s findings that the university had, in fact, discharged its duty of care through a series of effective measures to reduce contact – which were both reasonable and indeed ‘comprehensive’ – such that contact was in fact minimal. The Court held that the university’s planning over this period, which had engaged HR, OH, and overview from senior academics, had ensured fairness between the competing interests of Professor Pawlak/Dr Skrzypiec and the lab manager. Guideline no 9 from Hatton, of course, expressly refers to the need to ensure fairness to all employees when considering redistribution of responsibilities. Both claims were therefore dismissed.

Causation/quantum

Given its findings on liability, the Court did not need to make detailed findings on causation or quantum. The Court did however comment that, if it had found in favour of the claimants, that it would not have been prepared to find that work events had in fact accelerated the onset of the schizophrenia. Having considered the literature relied upon by Dr Skrzypiec’s consultant psychiatrist, the Court concluded on the totality of evidence adduced in this case that the causal link between life events and schizophrenia is highly speculative and at best appears a very low risk factor”. The Court left open the question of whether a generic link could be established between occupational stress and the condition in any future case, depending on any further research which is undertaken.

Rory Holmes acted for the successful defendant, instructed by Barbara Goddard of DAC Beachcroft Claims Ltd and Allianz Insurance. Nick Harrison (9SJ Chambers) acted for the Claimants, instructed by Simpson Millar Solicitors.

 


Related People


Portfolio Builder

Close

Select the practice areas that you would like to download or add to the portfolio

Download Add to portfolio
Portfolio close
Title Type CV Email

Remove All

Download