High Court awards £98 to demoted employee in Facebook dispute

The High Court has awarded less than £100 to an employee who was demoted by his company after he posted comments on Facebook about gay marriage, despite ruling that he had not breached his company rules.

Manchester-based Aughton Ainsworth partner Tom Ellis instructed Matrix Chambers’ Hugh Tomlinson QC for the claimant, Adrian Smith, who had been demoted by Trafford Housing Trust following the postings on the social networking website.

Smith claimed that the trust was in breach of contract after it demoted him and reduced his pay when he was not, he argued, guilty of any misconduct.

Outer Temple Chambers’ Andrew Short QC was drafted in by Devonshires Solicitors partner Philip Bardon to defend the claim for the trust.

According to the judgment, the claimant had pursued his claims through the High Court as opposed to the Employment Tribunal because by the time Smith had enough money to fund his claim, the time limit for such proceedings had expired.

Short argued that liability for damages should be limited to the difference between the claimant’s original and reduced pay for his 12-week notice period – a net amount of £98.

Smith was suspended following comments posted on his Facebook page in February 2011 about a BBC news story entitled: Gay church ‘marriages’ set to get the go-ahead.

According to the judgment there were two specific comments that sparked the suspension, one of which read: “ I don’t understand why people who have no faith and don’t believe in Christ would want to get hitched in church the bible is quite specific that marriage is for men and women if the state wants to offer civil marriage to same sex then that is up to the state; but the state shouldn’t impose it’s rules on places of faith and conscience.”

Mr Justice Briggs ruled that the trust was unable to demonstrate the claimant’s alleged misconduct, therefore it had no right to demote him. Yet the judge also agreed that he was entitled to just £98.

In his judgment he raised concerns about the outcome of the cases stating: “Mr Smith was taken to task for doing nothing wrong, suspended and subjected to a disciplinary procedure which wrongly found him guilty of gross misconduct, and then demoted to a non-managerial post with an eventual 40 per cent reduction in salary.

“The breach of contract which the trust thereby committed was serious and repudiatory. A conclusion that his damages are limited to less than £100 leaves the uncomfortable feeling that justice has not been done to him in the circumstances.”

While the claimant was unable to launch an ET claim because of financial constraints, the judge continued said that “the injustice he has suffered, although very real, is unfortunately something which this court is unable to alleviate by an award of substantial damages.”