• HR chief’s response to employee represented worst they had ever heard, judges said
  • Employee’s claim for unfair dismissal “well founded”, tribunal ruled
  • Senior manager privately said he wanted to “pummel” viewpoint into employee “with [his] fists”

An NHS trust threatened a staff member with legal action after he reported feeling suicidal, court documents reveal.

The judgment in an employment tribunal brought against East of England Ambulance Services Trust said it was the most “appalling” response the judges had seen in their combined 60 years of service.

The judgment, delivered at Norwich Employment Tribunal in January, ruled the employee’s claim he was unfairly dismissed was “well founded”.

The judgment also included evidence from a covert recording of the senior dismissing manager joking in a private meeting that he wanted to “pummel it [his point of view]” into the employee “with [his] fists”.

The language indicated there was not “any realistic prospect of a fair procedure” for the disciplinary process which led to motor vehicle technician Gordon Flemming’s dismissal for gross misconduct in November 2015, the judgment said.

The judgment read: “The tribunal comment that in our combined 60 years’ judicial experience we have not before seen such an appalling response…We use the word ‘appalling’ advisedly.

“An employee having indicated that he was seriously contemplating suicide was told not to write accordingly otherwise such letters would be referred to the trust’s solicitors.”

The trust’s response was prompted by Mr Flemming contacting then human resources director Ruth McAll’s assistant, and Paul Henry, assistant director of operations support, who HSJ understands is still employed at the trust. Mr Flemming accused the trust of corporate bullying and said he had considered suicide.

Alongside other allegations, he said: “I am suffering from a severe and crippling mental illness… Mr Henry… Are you really interested in what has happened to me Mr Henry, corporate bullying on such a scale that I have contemplated ending it all, does nobody care about that?”

“There was a response from Ruth McAll on 14 June 2015,” added the judgment, “This was quite a remarkable email from the director of HR who is responsible for the direction of human resources and a key figure in determining the culture of the organisation. We repeat the contents of the email in full as follows:

“’Dear Gordon, I appreciate you may have mental health problems, but this letter is not acceptable. In future do not write to anyone else in the trust except me. If you continue to write such letters we will refer them to our solicitors. Ruth’”

The tribunal said it recognised the claimant “was at times in his employment very difficult to manage, had difficulty in following management instructions and on occasion simply would not co-operate in what, at times, had been genuine efforts to resolve his employment difficulties”.

But the report also detailed that, for the first three years of his employment from April 2009, he was employed “without incident or difficulty”.

This changed, according to the judgment, following an incident in April 2012.

Mr Flemming became “very upset and stressed and experienced chest pains”, which was diagnosed as a heart attack when he was taken to hospital, following an “altercation” with his line manager. He was signed off work on health grounds.

Efforts to facilitate his return to work were, however, blighted by further rows between the employee and his line manager, as well as physical health relapses and the deepening mental health problems involving anxiety and depression.

The judgment said the “type of pathological reaction can be classified as post traumatic embitterment disorder” – a disorder characterised by lasting embitterment after exceptional though normal life events which violate basic beliefs. His relationship with the trust deteriorated, and he was eventually invited to a disciplinary hearing. 

Mr Flemming then covertly recorded private conversations between the trust senior managers overseeing his disciplinary hearing, by leaving his mobile phone in an interview room during a break in the proceedings.

Robert Ashford, then deputy director for operations and still understood to be employed by the trust, was one of those recorded. He said: “I mean getting up and pummelling it into him [Mr Flemming] with my fists is probably not appropriate in terms of policy, is it?”

The judgment added in regard to Mr Ashford’s comments: “It seems to us beyond belief that someone conducting a disciplinary hearing would have felt it appropriate to use the language that he did”.

The judgment continued: “Having heard from [Mr Ashford] we consider that his language betrayed a complete inability to recognise that the claimant’s behaviour was in some way linked to his disability. He made a value judgment as to the reasons for the claimant’s behaviour.

“[Mr Ashford’s] judgment was based neither on experience, training nor indeed any justifiable qualification. As we noted above, the respondent recognised that the claimant is a disabled person in the amended particulars of response.

“It must have been obvious to a person of his senior management responsibility and experience that if this was not a disability or if he was in doubt, further enquiries were necessary.”

HSJ asked the trust for comment. It said in a statement: “The trust has noted the tribunal’s judgment and is giving it close consideration. We are unable to comment further as the matter is not yet concluded.”

The trust declined to comment on whether it would appeal the judgment or confirm which managers named in the case it still employed.

A remedy hearing was listed at Norwich Employment Tribunal on 4 February 2019. The outcome has not yet been disclosed.