Ex-city council worker wins bullying case

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 13:33 11/07/2014

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A sacked Nelson City Council worker has won a long, hard fight to prove her axing was unjustified.

Robyn Hutchison, who was employed in May 2011 as a part-time executive assistant and dismissed seven months later, ran into several roadblocks but pursued her grievance to the Employment Court.

Judge Bruce Corkill has found her dismissal was unjustified and that the council's actions throughout the process in 2011 were "procedurally and substantially flawed". He also found the council had not been a fair and reasonable employer.

Judge Corkill also found an aspect of Hutchison's conduct during her employment had been lacking, and that she had breached her good faith obligations. He therefore reduced the remedies awarded to her, which included payment for lost wages [including interest] from December 21, 2011 to March 21 2012, which were reduced by 30 per cent.

She was also awarded $8400 for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings, when $30,000 in remedies was initially sought.

The council said yesterday it accepted the court's decision and would not be appealing.

Hutchison, who now lives in Wellington and continues to work as an executive assistant, said after the release of the decision yesterday, that she was battle-weary but relieved her mission was complete.

The case was focused on her claims of "shameful workplace bullying" and efforts to remedy an untenable workplace environment. The council argued that her actions were serious enough to have destroyed confidence in her ability to remain with it.

Things turned sour soon after she was employed, but the tipping point was the treatment of a former colleague at a work performance meeting in which she was asked to take notes.

Hutchison became "very distressed" about her circumstances as well as those of the colleague. Details surrounding the former colleague, known as Mr J, who died in September 2011, cannot be published.

The council's case against Hutchison was that she breached a duty of good faith by sending work emails to her home email address, that she had breached confidentiality by making a statement to the police, at the behest of the coroner, and another breach by undertaking secondary employment.

Judge Corkill said when drawing all aspects together, he found the decision to dismiss her was "beyond that which a fair and reasonable employer could have done in all the circumstances at the time".

He said that since none of the serious misconduct conclusions was appropriate, and that there were "serious procedural defects", the dismissal was unjustifiable.

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Hutchison told the Nelson Mail the process had highlighted how difficult it was for aggrieved employees to get to the stage she had. She has fought mainly alone but lauded the help from Wellington's Community Law Centre, and former Nelson police inspector Hugh Flower, who represented her at the recent court hearing.

"If you haven't got access to funds it gets quite scary. That's why people back off early.

"I've no regrets and it's been a long, arduous road, but I weighed up the cost of not doing it was greater than the cost of doing it.

"Most of us have mountains to climb in life and with that knowledge, it gave me the confidence and the tenacity to proceed."

Hutchison felt she had opened the door to effecting positive change by getting the critical issues into the public domain.

Council chief executive Clare Hadley, who was not in charge at the time Hutchison was dismissed, did not doubt that it had been a difficult process for everyone involved.

"As the employer, I am proud to lead this organisation, and the 220 staff that contribute every day to making Nelson a better place. Staff know that I am committed to knowing who they are, what they do, and working with them to address their concerns, and action suggestions on how to make this a better place to work."

- The Nelson Mail

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