· News

“Sham” investigation dismissed auction house director, tribunal rules

The respondents manufactured evidence to engineer a dismissal, the tribunal heard

An auction house director was subject to a “sham” investigation that resulted in him being unfairly and wrongfully dismissed, a tribunal has ruled.

Ben Palmer, one of three directors at Cavendish Philatelic Auctions (CPA), was subjected to a "contrived" disciplinary investigation after he accused a director at the Royal Philatelic Society (RPS) of sexual assault in 2021. The other two directors at CPA, Greg Spring and wife Susan Spring, voted to continue working with the director despite Palmer's assertion.

Palmer's claims against the RPS director, the tribunal heard, deteriorated his relationship with the Springs, who "manufactured" evidence of gross misconduct in the investigation against Palmer. Palmer was dismissed in April 2023.

Employment judge Fredericks-Bowyer ruled that he was unfairly and wrongly dismissed. 

Chris Syder, employment partner at Penningtons Manches Cooper, told HR magazine that Palmer was dismissed due to the Springs wanting control over the business.

He said: “This case is a timely reminder of the risks associated with going ahead with a contrived gross misconduct dismissal. The tribunal saw through the Springs’ evidence.  

“The real reason for dismissal was to further the Springs’ cause in accelerating Mr Palmer’s removal from the business so that they could secure control of it. That is clearly not a potentially fair reason for dismissal.”

Read more: RSA employee unfairly dismissed for union activity

Palmer began working as one of three directors at CPA in 2016.

In 2021, he claimed he had been sexually harassed by an unnamed director of the RPS. He asked the Springs if they could stop working with the alleged harasser. The Springs outvoted Palmer, and the tribunal heard that this led to a deterioration of the breakdown of the three directors’ relationship.

Palmer decided he wanted to leave the company, and suggested he would sell his shares (worth around £102,000) to Greg Spring. Spring offered Palmer £80,000 for the shares, an offer which Palmer described as “derisory”. He did not respond to Spring’s offer.

In October 2022, Palmer held a board meeting to decide the future of the company’s London office, which he managed. The Springs outvoted Palmer to close the office with the decision that, as Palmer was the only person working there, it was commercially unviable.

As secretary of the company, Susan Spring took minutes of the meeting that claimed Palmer was then tasked with finding another suitable London office. Palmer told the tribunal these minutes had been falsified and he had a different account of the meeting.

The tribunal agreed with Palmer’s claim that he had not been asked to find another office as the minutes showed the Springs clearly had “negative feelings” towards him.

On 2 March, Greg Spring told Palmer in an email that he had launched an investigation into Palmer’s misconduct. 

During and prior to this investigation, Greg Spring had prompted his daughter, wife and colleagues to send emails that raised concerns about Palmer’s conduct. 

On 27 March 2023, Spring emailed Palmer to request a meeting to discuss “matters of concern that have been brought to the company’s attention”. Palmer declined. In response, Spring sent him 23 questions he wanted answered as part of his investigation. Palmer did not respond.

The tribunal further heard that Spring had already decided the outcome of the investigation against Palmer by 22 March 2023, before Palmer was informed of the decision.

On 5 April 2023, Spring invited Palmer to a disciplinary hearing, which Palmer refused to attend as he believed Spring was determined “to get [him] out”. The meeting took place without him and he was later dismissed for gross misconduct.

The tribunal judge explained that Palmer’s behaviour: not doing work and destabilising colleagues, could justify dismissal, but as the investigation was “clearly bent” on painting Palmer’s behaviour as gross misconduct, this amounted to unfair dismissal.

According to the tribunal report, Spring was "determined to paint [Palmer] as obstinate, unproductive and deceptive come what may, even in the face of plausible explanations".

The judge also claimed gross misconduct was not the real reason for Palmer’s dismissal, but rather that the Springs wanted to secure control of the business going forward. Palmer was wrongfully and unfairly dismissed, the tribunal ruled.

Read more: Employee unfairly dismissed for reporting sheesha den, tribunal finds

Pam Loch, founder of law firm Loch Associates, told HR magazine: "Employers must ensure that the process they must rely on is a fair and reasonable one, and in accordance with the Acas code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures. 

"The employer must make sure that they are following their disciplinary process too, which should include the right to appeal any disciplinary decision.

"The decision that is made should be one that is within what is known as the band of reasonable responses, where it involves concerns around conduct. This means that an employer’s decision must be one that another reasonable employer in a tribunal’s view would have reached, when faced with the same set of circumstances."