Failure to investigate bullying claim costs $350,000

Three Queensland Appeal Court judges have upheld a security guard’s appeal and awarded her $364,008 in damages for a psychiatric illness caused by her manager “verbally” abusing her.

QCA President Justice Margaret McMurdo and Justice Robert Gotterson and Ann Lyons ruled University of Sunshine Coast’s (USC) failure to investigate and take action on an earlier bullying and harassment complaint left staff unreasonably exposed to risk of damage.

USC security guard Gjenie Wolters brought action against her employer on the grounds it had breached its duty of care by failing to provide a safe place of work. She alleged she developed a “debilitating psychiatric illness” after her line manager Mark Bradley verbally assaulted her in March 2008.

Wolters alleged Bradley “aggressively confronted” her, waved his arms at her and yelled while accusing her of abandoning her duties during a blackout. She said she attempted to explain her conduct, but Bradley did not want to discuss the matter and “stormed off”.

Wolters lodged a grievance with USC HR the next day but the unit “declined to investigate her grievance”.

Bradley, the judges heard, had been the subject of a bullying and harassment complaint some months earlier to Wolters’ grievance. Another female security guard, Heather Carney, lodged a complaint Bradley verbally assaulted her and threatened her position.

Carney voluntarily left USC but did not withdraw her complaint.

‘Low-key’ approach not reasonable response

The QCA judges heard there was “no proper investigation” into Carney’s complaint – instead a “low-key” approach was chosen. Sunshine Coast University’s then vice-chancellor Professor Paul Thomas, who Bradley regarded as a mentor, had an informal conversation with Bradley about his “management style”.

The judges found the action taken was not reasonable and exposed further employees to risk.

“The risk an employee, particularly a female employee, might sustain serious psychological distress, if not a psychiatric injury, as a result of being yelled at and threatened by Mr Bradley was reasonably foreseeable. The matter warranted investigation because Ms Carney’s complaint had not been withdrawn and her complaint involved a serious matter,” they agreed.

They said “a proper investigation” would have resulted in “at least Bradley being reprimanded and steps being taken that required him to address his aggressive behaviour”.

The informal conversation between Bradley and the vice-chancellor “fell short” of a reasonable response, they agreed. A reasonable response should have included a “formal reprimand, with or without a written warning that Bradley would face more serious disciplinary action if he behaved that way again”.

Earlier, a Qld Supreme Court judge found the informal conversation would have sufficed as appropriate action. But the Appeal Court judges overturned the decision, saying they were “not persuaded it would have been an effective” deterrent to Bradley’s behaviour.

Security staff are ‘used to it’

Former USC vice-chancellor Thomas said Bradley had a history of raising his voice to security staff. But Thomas did not regard it as bullying as security staff were “quite different from the normal people who populate universities” and used to being yelled at.

The Appeal Court judges upheld Wolters’ argument USC’s failure to investigate the Carney complaint meant “no consideration was given to specific aspects of Mr Bradley’s conduct about which he should have been counselled”. “It follows logically the appropriate reprimand and counselling Mr Bradley would have been given would have placed considerable emphasis on bringing that deficiency to his attention and counselling him to check his facts first before criticising other staff members.”

The judges awarded Wolters $364,008 and ordered USC to pay her legal costs for the appeal. (Wolters v The University of the Sunshine Coast[2013], QCA 228, 20/08/2013)

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