County payout despite ruling in sex bias case

West Sussex County Council
West Sussex County Council

WEST Sussex County Council has been cleared of a claim of sexual discrimination – but still faces paying out compensation to a former senior manager.

Former finance chief Francis Austin sued for sex discrimination, claiming he had been effectively forced out of his Chichester-based role following a complaint against him.

An employment tribunal in August 2013 ruled in his favour, awarding £168,957 for sex discrimination and unfair constructive dismissal.

But the council has now managed to overturn the discrimination finding, which an employment appeal judge said was based on no findings of fact.

However, it will still have to pay an as-yet-undecided sum to Mr Austin after the unfair dismissal ruling was upheld by employment appeal tribunal judge, Lady Stacey.

“I have decided that the findings made by the employment tribunal are such that a tribunal properly directing itself would be bound to find that there was unfair constructive dismissal,” she said.

Mr Austin’s troubles began in January 2012 when a female employee of the council made a complaint of unwanted attention from him.

He was sent home from work, suspended and told he faced an allegation of sexual harassment.

Disciplinary proceedings began, but Mr Austin, who was signed off by his doctor as unfit for work, resigned before a planned hearing could take place.

He said his doctor had advised him that he could not attend due to his ill health and yet the council had refused to postpone.

The council had already made up its mind that he should be dismissed, he said, favouring the word of a female complainant over him as a man.

Ruling in his favour in 2013, an employment tribunal (ET) found that had the complainant been a man, the allegation would not have even been labelled as sexual harassment.

The council had also breached its own disciplinary policy in several ways, it said.

Ruling on the council’s appeal, Lady Stacey overturned the sexual discrimination finding.

“The finding that there was sexual discrimination cannot be upheld on the findings in fact in the written reasons,” she said.

Lady Stacey upheld the constructive dismissal finding and ordered that the case go back to the employment tribunal to decide a revised damages payout.