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Lord Sugar: Not Sweet Enough? Apprentice Winner Claims Constructive Dismissal

Winner of the 2010 Apprentice series , Stella English, is claiming constructive dismissal after complaining colleagues at one of Lord Sugar’s companies (Viglen) ‘ostracised’ her. She alleges she was seen as nothing more than an ‘over-paid lackey’ and branded the job a ‘sham’, with none of the mentorship and care from Lord Sugar she believed she was signing up for .

It is an unusual case. She brought the claim against Lord Sugar despite the fact that she had been transferred to a job she enjoyed at YouView, another of Lord Sugar’s companies, after she had brought up how unhappy she was at Viglen. Unfortunately only three months later, she was informed he would not be renewing her contract. She has resigned, pre-empting the end of her contract, and claims that she was under the impression she would be working in close contact with Lord Sugar after winning the Apprentice and was shocked to find that he couldn’t care less; seeing her only seven times during her 13 month employment.

So, what are her chances of a successful claim?

Constructive dismissal is defined by the Employment Rights Act 1996 section 95(1)c  as (draw a deep breath) ‘the employee terminates the contract under which she is employed (with or without notice) in circumstances in which she is entitled to terminate it without notice by reason of the employer’s conduct’.

To be entitled to terminate, there must be repudiatory breach (Western Excavating (ECC) Ltd v Sharp [1978] ICR 221), which means the employer has indicated it no longer considers itself bound by an essential term of the contract, e.g. the requirement to pay wages or the requirement to maintain the mutual bond of trust and confidence. Destroying that bond of trust and confidence can include acting in a way so ‘intolerable’ that the employee was forced to resign (Savoia v Chiltern Herb Farms Ltd [1982] IRLR 166), which appears to be Stella’s claim. Although there is an element of ‘fairness’, inevitably, constructive dismissal is a contractual claim and Stella will have to prove there was ‘fundamental breach’ (British Leyland UK Ltd v McQuilken [1978] IRLR 245).

This is a high standard which will be up to Stella to prove.

However, claimants have successfully received compensation for:

  • Managers ignoring complaints (Goolds v McConnell [1995] IRLR 516);
  • Bullying and swearing (Korkaluk v Cantor Fitzgerald International [2004] ICR 697);
  • Criticising in front of subordinates (Hilton International Hotels (UK) Ltd v Protopapa [1990] IRLR 316); and
  • Lack of support (Seligman v McHugh [1979] IRLR 316)

Whether Lord Sugar’s infamous status as ‘Britain’s Most Belligerent Boss’ – a status she will have known at the time of accepting the contract – will work against her, will be a matter for the tribunal. Or perhaps it could even work against Lord Sugar.

The most pressing argument against Stella’s case however may be the all important matter of timing. Lord Sugar listened to her complaint and transferred her to a job at YouView, which she ‘enjoyed’ for three months before he announced her contract would not be renewed. It is unlikely this can be construed as leaving ‘soon after the conduct complained of’ (Western Excavating (ECC) Ltd v Sharp [1978] ICR 221; also: Bashri v Brillo Manufacturing Co. (1979)), and it has a chance of ruining her claim.

As she is alleged to have threatened Lord Sugar with ‘bad publicity’ prior to leaving Viglen, it is to be questioned what is the real purpose of her claim.

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Tom Moyes

Partner
Employment Law
TMoyes@LawBlacks.com
0113 227 9238
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Tom Moyes Blacks Solicitors LLP