Employee harassed for making complaint is awarded millions in compensation

WRITTEN BY Rebecca Richardson

Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that hell is other people. Few understand the meaning of those words better than the victims of calculated and continuous workplace harassment. In the recent decision of Leggett v Hawkesbury Race Club Limited, a long-term employee was awarded millions in compensation after it was found that she had suffered psychological injury at the hands of her boss.

Vivienne Leggett worked as a sponsorship and marketing manager at Hawkesbury Race Club for 25 years before Greg Rudolph took up the position of CEO in 2016. By all accounts, Leggett performed well and had a substantial degree of autonomy in her role securing and retaining sponsors.

Rudolph immediately confronted Leggett, telling her that she was ‘earning too much money’. Soon thereafter, Rudolph began questioning routine expenses and demanded extensive documentation of nearly every facet of her work. He withheld half of Leggett’s bonus for that year pending a review of her performance. This represented the beginning of what Justice Rares would characterise as a campaign calculated to force Leggett’s resignation [201].

In October, having previously informed the CEO that she was losing sleep over his flurry of interrogative emails, Leggett wrote to Rudolph stating that the situation was ‘untenable’ and asking that the board be notified of her complaint. Rudolph wrote back, summoning her to a meeting to discuss her work performance with the option of bringing a ‘support person’.

This event shattered Ms Leggett’s mental health. She took long service leave suffering major symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Rudolph withheld various commissions during this period which led to Leggett terminating her employment on the basis that the Club had repudiated her contract.

In the Federal Court, Leggett made a general protections claim that adverse action had been taken against her because she had exercised workplace rights to make complaints and take sick leave. There were two main claims:

First, that Rudolph had called Leggett into his office (threatening her employment) because she had complained to him in her October email.

Second, that the club had withheld Leggett’s entitlements, removed her name from the race books for meetings she attended, and informed staff and sponsors that she would not return to work because she had exercised her workplace right to take sick leave and had complained about Rudolph.

For a general protections claim to succeed, it is not enough for an applicant to show that bad/bullying/or unfair things occurred in the workplace. The critical question, as Justice Rares put it, is “about the conscious mental processes in forming the reason or intent for taking that action”. The balance of evidence weighed in favour of Leggett’s accusation that Rudolph was punishing her for a) making a complaint and b) taking a leave entitlement. Justice Rares was unconvinced by the Club’s submission that Rudolph was confused about pay arrangements and ignorant to the effect he was having on an increasingly distraught Leggett. Key in that regard were various statements the CEO had made expressing a ‘contemptuous’ disregard for Leggett and her condition, including one where he suggested that Leggett had “pulled the stress leave certificate” to avoid confrontation and another where he boasted “dropping like flies” to his father-in-law after Leggett’s mental breakdown.

The Court heard expert testimony that Leggett’s psychological damage was severe, preventing her from working for the foreseeable future and leading Rares to the conclusion that Mr Rudolph had “effectively destroyed” her life. The Hawkesbury Race Club was ordered to pay Ms Leggett $2,254,510 (this included compensation for economic loss, non-economic loss, penalties for breaching the Fair Work Act, and legal fees).

Rebecca Richardson thanks Jack Andrighetto for his research assistance.

For all employment related queries or concerns, please contact our Employment Law & Investigations team at BAL Lawyers.

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