Defense mechanism

For big name defendants employment discrimination can be a PR catastrophe. Look at 4 New Square.

When it emerged that set member Aisha Bijlani was suing the set’s senior clerk Lizzie Wiseman and three successive heads of chambers, it received some less than favourable national press coverage.

But when the judgment was handed down in the set’s favour (15 March 2010), coverage of the news was thin on the ground.

It is the reputational issues involved with litigation that often encourages litigants to settle cases.

As one employment lawyers states: “Most of our cases settle, it is better and more costs effective all round, you don’t have the reputational problems that high profile cases can bring.”

F&C Asset Management is another company that knows the true cost of settling a sexual discrimination claim. The fund manager had been caught up in a two-year legal battle with its former head of legal Gillian Switalksi, a cases that settled behind closed doors in December.

Yet the Switalski claim refuses to go away.

The lawyer had run F&C’s legal department between 2000 and 2006.  When she left she instructed Withers partner Elaine Aarons to launch a sexual discrimination claim against the company.

She sought £19m compensation from F&C because, Switalski claimed, she was the victim of a sustained campaign of sexual discrimination, harassment and victimisation that allegedly began in late 2004.

The compensation figure was based on lost earnings in salary, bonuses, stock options and future potential income.

As one employment lawyers says, the £19m  compensation package was a “best case scenario”. The lawyer explains: “She would have listed everything in the schedule of losses and would’ve used top end figures.” 

The tribunal upheld a series of claims, including that she was overlooked for management positions in favour of her male colleagues.

Also that she was unfairly scrutinised by her line manager when she took time off to look after her disabled son. By comparison, a male employee, who also had a child with special needs, was granted time out of the office.

The case yo-yoed between the Employment Tribunal, where it was heard on three occasions, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

In June 2008 Switalski switched lawyers from Withers to Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons employment partner Howard Hymanson because fees had become too costly (17 June 2008).

Switalski then followed Hymanson after he joined Harbottle & Lewis in February last year (9 February 2009). This was ahead of a tribunal hearing  in June, which went in the claimant’s favour.

The case finally settled in December leaving many employment lawyers speculating that Switalski had secured only a fraction of her original claim and that F&C had wanted to step out of the press spotlight.

It all seemed to be going away quietly until last week, when Switalski was plastered all over the press when it became clear that the case had settled. Those close to the case were puzzled that it had been flung back into the limelight because the saga came to an end before Christmas.

This may not be an all out PR catastrophe for the litigants involved in this case, but it does serve to show that just because a case has settled it won’t necessarily be ignored.