The Court of Appeal has held in The Mayor & Burgesses of the London Borough of Lambeth v Agoreyo that it is not a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence for an employer to suspend an employee if they have “reasonable and proper cause” to carry out the suspension.
Ms Agoreyo, a teacher with 15 years’ experience, started work on a fixed term contract teaching a class of five and six-year olds. She was not told that two of the children (O and Z) had behavioural difficulties and had not been asked if she had experience teaching children on the autistic spectrum.
Soon after she started work, she spoke to the head teacher about the “challenging behaviour” of O and Z and it was agreed that she needed more support. In December 2012, however, she was suspended on full pay by the executive head teacher following three incidents in which she allegedly used force against O and Z. The head teacher had previously investigated two of the incidents and concluded that the force used was reasonable. The letter said that suspension was a “neutral act” and had been initiated in order to allow an investigation into the incidents to be carried out.
She resigned on the same day that she was suspended and subsequently brought a claim for damages for breach of contract - the implied term of trust and confidence - in the county court.
Decision of lower courts
The county court judge dismissed her claim on the basis that after receiving reports about the allegations, the school had “just and proper cause” to suspend her in order to protect the children in its care. In addition, her letter of resignation thanking the head teacher for her support undermined her claim for breach of contract.
The High Court, however, concluded that the school had adopted suspension as its “default position and as largely a knee-jerk reaction to the strident terms” in which one of the members of staff had reported the incident. In those circumstances, suspension was enough to breach the implied term of trust and confidence.
The local authority appealed arguing that the High Court judge had substituted his own view for the trial judge’s findings of fact; that he made a mistake in law about the question of suspension; and that he was wrong to find the act of suspension as being anything other than a neutral act.
Decision of Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal held that the question it had to answer was whether the way in which the school had responded to reports of possible misconduct was “reasonable and proper”. If it was, then it could not be said to have breached the implied term of trust and confidence. This was a highly fact-specific question, as opposed to an issue of law and had nothing to do with whether the suspension was neutral or otherwise.
In this case, and bearing in mind that the school had to safeguard the interests of very young children, the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial judge was entitled to decide that the employer had reasonable and proper cause to suspend Ms Agoreyo. It followed therefore that the High Court was not entitled to interfere with that conclusion of fact.
Her claim that her suspension was a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence therefore failed.