05 Nov 2010

Court values non-pecuniary aspects of workplace

by Joe Catanzariti

The recent Federal Court decision in Quinn v Overland [2010] FCA 799 highlights the increasing recognition placed by courts on the importance of the non-pecuniary aspects of a workplace to employees.

In this case, Ms Quinn sought an injunction to prevent her employer from further suspending her from work, after already being suspended for seven months during an investigation into allegations of misconduct.

Justice Bromberg found that the employer had failed to act in accordance with statutory obligations under the Public Administration Act 2004 (Vic) and failed to afford Ms Quinn with procedural fairness in accordance with public sector employment principles.

The question was then whether the balance of convenience favoured the granting of the injunction.

Why non-pecuniary factors were relevant

Justice Bromberg identified two main issues to be considered in determining Ms Quinn's application for interlocutory relief:

  • whether there was a prima facie probability that at trial Ms Quinn would be entitled to relief; and
  • whether the injury or inconvenience likely to be suffered by Ms Quinn if the injunction were refused outweighed the injury the employer would suffer if the injunction were granted.

Against the injunction, there was an ongoing investigation into her actions at work, and if she were allowed back to work that investigation could be compromised by her talking to certain other staff members. Ms Quinn however gave undertakings she would not communicate with them about the investigation.

There was also the question of her relationship with other staff, but Justice Bromberg found that Ms Quinn would be able to perform her functions adequately.

In Ms Quinn's favour were the benefits she gained from working. Justice Bromberg was careful to highlight that the workplace is not simply a place of economic sustenance:

"[There is] a growing acceptance at common law of the right of an employee to perform work. That recognition has arisen out of changed social attitudes... Workplaces are a hub of important human exchanges which are vital to the wellbeing of individual workers. Work provides employees with purpose, dignity, pride, enjoyment, social acceptance and many social connections... These non pecuniary attributes of work are important and their denial can be devastating to the legitimate interests of any worker, either skilled or unskilled."

Justice Bromberg found that the denial of these non-pecuniary attributes of employment was having a personally detrimental effect on Ms Quinn. Any success at trial, or future award of damages, would not be adequate compensation. He granted her application for an injunction, with the effect of lifting her suspension and allowing her to return to work.

Implications

Considering the weight given to the non-pecuniary aspects of employment, employers should be careful when excluding employees from the workplace. If a court finds that the exclusion of the employee was on balance detrimental, it could, as in this instance, order the employee to be reinstated.

This article was written when Joe Catanzariti was a partner at Clayton Utz and does not necessarily reflect his views as Vice-President of the Fair Work Commission.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.