The case of Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth was a claim brought by a teacher on the basis that her employer had committed a repudiatory breach of contract - specifically that the employer had breached the implied term of trust and confidence. The case was brought in the County Court in England and while there was some suggestion that it was an attempt by Ms Agoreyo to obtain compensation for constructive unfair dismissal by the back door (she did not have the necessary service to make such a claim in the employment tribunal) the issue that arises is of relevance to those dealing with misconduct investigations.
Ms Agoreyo was suspended from her employment after it was alleged that she had used unreasonable force on three occasions during November and December 2012 when dealing with two extremely challenging children. Two of those incidents had been looked into by the Head teacher who had concluded reasonable force had been used. Despite that, the Executive Head teacher informed Ms Agoreyo on 14 December 2012 that she was suspended. Ms Agoreyo submitted a letter of resignation the same day.
Ms Agoreyo then brought a claim arguing that her suspension was a repudiatory breach of contract on the basis that the suspension was neither reasonable nor necessary in order for the investigation to take place. The County Court found that the employer was bound to suspend Ms Agoreyo given the nature of the allegations against her. Ms Agoreyo then appealed to the High Court.
The appeal was allowed. The High Court Judge was of the view that the District Court Judge had erred in a number of ways in coming to his conclusion. However, a significant point was the High Court's criticism of the procedure followed by Lambeth Council. No evidence had been led to suggest that there had been any attempt to find out Ms Agoreyo's version of events prior to her suspension. In addition, the letter sent to Ms Agoreyo regarding the investigation made no attempt to explain why the investigation could not be carried out fairly without the need for suspension. These factors led to the conclusion that suspension was a knee jerk reaction and had been adopted as the default position. These factors, together with the fact that two of the allegations had been investigated and found to be not worthy of disciplinary action, were enough to amount to a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence.
This case is a reminder that suspension of an employee should not be a knee jerk reaction and that employers need to carefully consider whether there is a need for suspension and if there is any alternative. Many suspension letters include a statement confirming that the suspension was a neutral act (as had happened in this case) but this will not assist an employer if a breach of contract has occurred.