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A former Director of Leeds United Football Club has failed in an action for wrongful dismissal (Williams v Leeds United Football Club). Mr Williams’ contract provided for a salary of £200,000 per annum and a 12 month notice period. He was given notice of redundancy. However, one week into the notice period he was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct. The employer had instructed forensic investigators to review their email system with a view to finding a basis for a gross misconduct dismissal. This was done with the intention of avoiding the substantial notice payment.
The investigation uncovered an email which Mr Williams had sent more than 5 years earlier. The email contained pornographic material which he had forwarded to two former colleagues and also to a junior female colleague. Leeds commenced a disciplinary procedure and Mr Williams was dismissed in his absence when he failed to attend the disciplinary hearing. Leeds refused to pay the £200k notice pay.
The High Court in London dismissed his notice pay claim. Leeds were entitled to dismiss Mr Williams without notice in the circumstances. The senior nature of his position, combined with the fact that the lewd nature of the images could have amounted to harassment of a female colleague, resulted in a breach of trust and confidence. His conduct amounted to a repudiatory breach of contract. The Court was not moved by the employee’s argument that the delay of over 5 years meant that he had not breached trust and confidence – Leeds acted when they became aware of the breach. Also irrelevant was the fact that the employer was actively seeking material to justify dismissal and avoid paying notice.