School to pay $18k for unjust dismissal

Last updated 13:58 06/08/2014

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A Christchurch health school has been ordered to pay more than $18,000 in compensation and lost wages to its former assistant principal after it unjustifiably dismissed the woman.

The Employment Relations Authority ruled Liana Johnston was both unjustifiably disadvantaged and dismissed when her employment was terminated by the Southern Regional Health School in December 2011.

The school provides education for children who are unwell for extended periods and missing school. Each year it teaches almost 700 children either at their home, in hospital or in one of the school's classrooms.

The school is based in Christchurch and has 21 teachers across 11 sites throughout the South Island.

Johnston, who had been with the school since 2001, was based in Dunedin.

Authority member Michael Loftus said Johnston was not only ''unjustifiably dismissed but also disadvantaged and the difficulties, which were causing hurt, continued for some time''.

He ordered the school to pay $6351.78 for lost wages and $12,000 compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.

Southern Regional Health School principal Helen Mantell said today the amount of money the school had been ordered to pay was ''unfortunate'', but it would not impact the teaching and learning received by pupils.

Loftus said the school failed to properly investigate a complaint about Johnston's work ethic made by colleague Kate Atchison in late 2010.

The school organised mediation in July 2011, but by then the relationship between the pair was fraught and they refused to be in the same room together. Mediation was abandoned and Atchison dropped the complaint.

The relationship came to a head during a professional development and team building workshop at Hanmer Springs in August 2011 when Atchison reacted ''visibly, vocally and negatively'' to some of Johnston's statements, the authority said.

Soon after that Johnston went on sick leave and was absent for the next four months.

Medical certificates provided by Johnston did not shed much light on her condition and the school tried unsuccessfully to get more details about her condition and prognosis.

In December, a detailed medical certificate was provided, saying Johnston had ''developed significant depressive and anxiety symptoms from her work situation''.

A meeting with Johnston and the school then concluded she would start back at work in February 2012. 

After the meeting, Mantell questioned how Johnston's prognosis could suddenly change after being unable to work for six months. On December 16 the school terminated her employment.

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Loftus said if Atchison's complaint had been addressed when it was first raised she might have become aware Johnston was not shirking, but working in accordance with terms agreed with her employer.

He said the school should have waited for information on Johnston's prognosis, as its arrival was imminent, before terminating her employment.

- The Press

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