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Sending email was repudiatory breach

Williams v Leeds United Football Club

Mr Williams was employed by Leeds as technical director when he was given notice of redundancy. His contract would terminate at the end of his 12-month notice period (as the Club later agreed), or earlier if he was guilty of gross misconduct.

Shortly after receiving his redundancy notice, he was summarily dismissed on the grounds that five years earlier he had sent obscene and pornographic material from his work email account to a friend at a different club. It was later discovered that Mr Williams had also forwarded the email to two other people – one of whom was a female receptionist at Leeds.

He claimed wrongful dismissal, arguing that what he had done was not serious enough to amount to a fundamental breach of contract. The High Court held that it was. It was conduct which breached the implied term of mutual trust and confidence between Mr Williams and the Club. Relevant to this conclusion was:

•    Mr Williams’ seniority
•    the nature of the images
•    the fact that images were sent by a senior manager to a junior female employee
•    potential reputational damage: dissemination of the images was readily identified with the Club.

In this case, it didn’t matter that Mr Williams had not been given a copy of the Club’s internet policy. It ought to have been obvious to him – a member of senior management – that the Club’s email system should not be used to send obscene or pornographic images, the High Court held.  So the Club had been entitled to dismiss him without notice, and Mr Williams’ claim failed.

One interesting point in this case was the Court’s finding that before dismissing him the Club had decided not to pay Mr Williams during his notice period and was actively looking for evidence of gross misconduct. Those facts didn’t prevent the Club dismissing Mr Williams summarily when it discovered the misconduct, said the High Court. Nor did they prevent the Club from relying on misconduct discovered after dismissal in order to justify it.