The limits of privacy

Photo by Tony Liao on Unsplash

Several of my previous blogs (It happened outside work … (or it’s my private life!) published on 7 February 2019; Social Media Misuse published on 11 April 2019; and Social media and dismissal published on 20 May 2019) have addressed the issue of whether employees have a right to privacy in the work-place.

The short answer is yes and no: privacy is not an absolute right.

Privacy in the work-place is becoming more of an issue thanks to the widespread use of social media by employees outwith working hours (and, of course, during the working day).

If you’re working in the public sector (and this, potentially, covers a large number of employees), Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights i.e. the right to family and private life could be particularly relevant to your situation.

Even if you’re employed by a private sector organisation, Article 8 rights are still relevant because they are ultimately guaranteed by the State (the United Kingdom) as a signatory to the European Convention. Furthermore, there are all sorts of situations where private sector organisations may be regarded as ’emanations/entities of the State’ because they carry out some type of work or provide a service which is beneficial to the wider public (think utilities companies or those organisations which benefit from outsourced contracts from local and central government).

Regular readers of this blog will know, of course, that provisions of the European Convention have been incorporated into Scots Law via the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Employers, quite rightly, may have legitimate concerns about the type of content or statements that their employees post on social media platforms – especially if such material could cause the organisation to suffer some sort of reputational damage.

In such circumstances, it’s simply not a competent defence for employees to argue that disciplinary action (up to and including dismissal) which might be taken by their employers represents unwarranted interference in their private lives.

That said, it is very important for employers to set out clear guidelines and policies covering social media (mis)use by employees during and outwith working hours. There is a balancing exercise to be had here between the legitimate interests of the employer and the employee.

So, it was with some interest that I read about a case before the Outer House of the Court of Session during the summer which dealt with the boundaries of employee privacy (see Petition of B, C and Others v Chief Constable Police Service of Scotland and Others [2019] CSOH 48).

Lord Bannatyne rejected the Petition for judicial review lodged by a number of serving Police Scotland officers who were accused of (non-criminal) misconduct by their employer. These officers had allegedly used the WhatsApp social media platform to exchange a number of messages between them which were deemed to be offensive in nature and not in keeping with their role as serving members of Police Scotland.

Police Scotland wished to access the content of these messages in order to progress the misconduct hearings, but the officers involved in the disciplinary investigation argued that this constituted a breach of their human rights – specifically their rights to privacy Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. More generally, the officers were also arguing that they had the right to privacy at common law.

His Lordship highlighted the significance of the important decision of the European Court of Human Rights: Von Hannover v Germany [2005] 40 EHRR 1 to the case before him.

Von Hannover raises three important considerations:

“… the width of the concept of private life; the purpose of Article 8, i.e. what it seeks to protect; and the need to examine the particular circumstances of the case in order to decide whether, consonant with that purpose, the applicant had a legitimate expectation of protection in relation to the subject matter of his complaint.”

The key issue which Lord Bannatyne identifies from Von Hannover, is whether the Scottish police officers “had a legitimate expectation of protection” in terms of Article 8; or to draw upon a phrase later formulated by UK Supreme Court Justice, Lord Toulson: “a legitimate expectation of privacy” (see In re JR38 2016 AC 1131).

In rejecting the officers’ petition, Lord Bannatyne focused on the existence of the Standards of Professional Behaviour contained in Schedule 1 to the 2014 Regulations to which all serving Police officers must adhere (in particular the officers had sworn an oath to uphold these Standards both while on and off duty).

His Lordship stated:

There is a restriction on police officers’ private life and therefore their expectation of privacy. … It is only in relation to these matters that there is a limitation on the officer’s privacy it is not a whole scale intrusion into his private life. Accordingly to achieve the underlying purpose of the Standards, namely: the maintenance of public confidence in the police, police officers have a limitation on their expectation of privacy as above described.

A link to Lord Banntyne’s judgement can be found below:

A link to how the story was reported by BBC Scotland can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-48799289

As a point of interest, several days after Lord Bannatyne’s judgement was reported, the BBC carried a story about United States Border Patrol officers who were suspended from employment for posting offensive remarks about migrants (and other individuals) on Facebook.

A link to this story can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-48834824

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 3 December 2019

Pay up! (or Frustration of Contract Part 3)

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

In a number of previous blogs (Stormy Weather, I’m at the end of my tether! Locking Horns; and Frustration of Contract?), I discussed the issue of termination of contract when unforeseen factors outwith the control of the parties intervene.

It might be the destruction of the subject matter of the contract; death of one of the parties in an agreement involving the provision of personal services; or even particularly bad weather or unforeseen events.

Potentially, these factors may frustrate the contract in the sense that it can no longer be carried out or performed in the manner which the parties originally intended. In such cases of genuine frustration, the contract or agreement is terminated and the parties are discharged from their obligations.

There have been some famous cases over the years with frustration of contract at their heart:

  • Taylor v Caldwell [1863] EWHC QB J1; 122 ER 309;3 B. & S. 826
  • Krell v Henry [1903] 2 KB 740
  • Herne Bay Steam Boat v Hutton [1903] 2 KB 683
  • Vitol S.A. v Esso Australia Ltd. (The Wise) [1989] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 451

A contract is not frustrated if it becomes more expensive or difficult to perform or if the alleged frustrating event could have been foreseen (and presumably dealt with) (see Davis Contractors Ltd v Fareham Urban District Council [1956] AC 696 and Tsakiroglou & Co Ltd v Noblee Thorl GmbH [1962] AC 93).

The Emiliano Sala Affair

This leads me back to a story which I have been following with interest over the last few months: the tragic death of the Argentinian footballer, Emiliano Sala in a plane crash over the English Channel in January 2019.

It will be recalled that Sala’s former Football Club, the French side FC Nantes had just agreed to him transferring to the English Premier League side, Cardiff City FC. The transfer fee was £15 million, but shortly after the accident, Cardiff City claimed that the transfer had not gone through and it had no obligation to pay the first part of this figure. In other words, Sala was never an employee of Cardiff City according to this argument because the paperwork had not been finalised.

In normal circumstances, where a contract involves the provision of personal services (and a contract of employment certainly fits into this category), the death of a new or prospective employee would tend to terminate the agreement. Death is pretty much the ultimate frustrating factor – especially in cases involving unforeseen deaths.

The world of top flight football, however, would seem to be different and does not seem to be bound by the considerations that govern us mere mortals.

FIFA, the governing body, has now spoken and determined that Cardiff City will have to pay the first part of the transfer fee (£5 million in case you’re asking) to FC Nantes. Failure to do so may result in FIFA sanctions being imposed on Cardiff (a signing ban).

Please find a link below to the FIFA press release:

https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/who-we-are/news/fifa-players-status-committee-renders-decision-on-transfer-of-late-emiliano-sala

It would seem that FIFA rules transcend events such as death which ordinarily would throw a spanner in the works in the context of an ordinary employment contract situation.

Cardiff City can appeal against the decision of FIFA by going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and, in October 2019, the Club indicated that it would so:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/oct/02/cardiff-appeal-cas-court-of-arbitration-sport-emiliano-sala-transfer-fee-fifa

Ultimately, whatever way this tragic story ends, I can’t help but wonder whether FC Nantes or Cardiff FC had the foresight to insure Sala’s life in the event of untimely and unforeseen death. Sadly, the fact that a young man with a promising future died in a horrible accident seems to have got lost along the way while Nantes and Cardiff polish up their legal arguments.

Links to the story can be found below:

Emiliano Sala: Fifa rules Cardiff must pay first instalment of £5.3m to Nantes

Cardiff City have been told to pay the first instalment of £5.3m to Nantes for striker Emiliano Sala, who died in a plane crash.

https://news.sky.com/story/cardiff-city-face-signing-ban-if-they-dont-pay-emiliano-sala-transfer-fee-11854081

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 November 2019

I wish I hadn’t done that … (continued)

Photo by Miguel Perales on Unsplash

In February of this year, a story on BBC Scotland’s website caught my eye which concerned the contractual duty of care owed by an employee to her employer.

A link to the original story on the BBC website can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-47135686

A case had been lodged at the Court of Session in Edinburgh – Peebles Media Group Ltd v Patricia Reilly (A226/17) February 2019.

The legal action taken by Peebles Media Group arose because the it claimed that a former employee (Patricia Reilly) was negligent when she transferred nearly £200,000 (by way of 3 payments) to an online fraudster. Reilly claimed that she believed that the order to transfer the cash had been legitimately issued by her boss (sent via email). The employer, on the other hand, alleged that Reilly ignored warnings from the company’s bankers that fraudsters were attempting to obtain funds from unsuspecting victims by sending what appeared to be legitimate orders from bosses. By not heeding these warnings, the employer clearly believed that Reilly was negligent in the discharge of her duties. It was also alleged that Reilly had no authority to make payments on behalf of the employer.

According to the BBC story in February, the employer’s bank had refunded approximately £85,000, but there was still the issue of an outstanding sum of nearly £107,000 – hence the dispute.

Well, Lord Summers, sitting in the Outer House of the Court of Session, has now made a decision in this case (Peebles Media Group Ltd v Patricia Reilly [2019] CSOH 89).

A link to the decision of the Outer House can be found below:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/2019csoh89.pdf?sfvrsn=0

There is an implied, contractual duty that an employee will take reasonable care in the discharge of her duties. In other words, employees are expected to discharge their duties with skill and care. After all, this is one of the reasons that the employer has selected them.

Lord Summers stated that:

I acknowledge that employees have an implied obligation to exercise reasonable skill and care in the performance of their duties. That such a term exists is amply borne out by Lister v Romford Ice and Cold Storage Co Ltd [1957] AC 555 and Janata Bank v Ahmad [1981] IRLR 457.”

In Lister Romford Ice and Cold Storage [1957] 1 All ER 125, [1957] AC 555, [1956] UKHL 6  at the insistence of the insurers, the employer sued his employee, a lorry driver, for failing to drive safely (an implied term of his employment contract) and causing a fellow employee to suffer a personal injury as a result of the negligent driving.

In practice, these types of cases tend to be few and far between, but as we have seen with Lister and Janata Bank they are not entirely unheard of.

In Janata Bank v Ahmed [1981] IRLR 457 Ahmed was employed as bank manager. His employer sued him for damages for overdrafts that he had negligently authorised in respect of certain customers. Unfortunately, Ahmed had failed to investigate whether these customers were in a financial position to pay back the overdrafts. They were not and the debts owed to the bank amounted to a considerable sum. The English Court of Appeal held that Ahmed was liable in damages (£34,640) to his employers for the losses caused by his negligence. The equivalent figure in 2019 would be nearer £200,000.

Providing further context to these types of claims, his Lordship continued by making the following remarks:

More generally it can be observed that employers seldom sue their employees for damages. Other than Lister and Janata Bank (cited above), there are hardly any reported cases. Why that is so is a matter lying beyond the scope of this opinion. I accept that the directors of the pursuers in fulfilment of their duties to the company were entitled to consider whether an action was merited.”

His Lordship has concluded that Reilly should not be held liable to her former employer for the losses that it suffered as a result of the fraudulent enterprise. Admittedly, there had been breaches on Reilly’s part of her duty to exercise skill and care, but this of itself would not have prevented the fraud from occurring. It was a “tragic case”.

The employer’s argument that it that the emails which Reilly received purportedly from the managing director, Yvonne Bremner, were “obviously fraudulent” was not proved. Although Bremner was on holiday in Tenerife at the time of the fraud, the employer argued that Reilly could have contacted her to seek further instructions before making the payments.

Significantly, it was noted by the Court that Reilly had no reason to suspect that the emails instructing the payments were fraudulent. This was a sophisticated fraudulent enterprise known as a “whaling exercise”.

As for the employer’s claim that Reilly had no authority to make the payments in question, this was disproved. As Lord Summers noted:

… the defender [Reilly] had the authority to use the pursuers’ [Peebles Media] online banking facilities.

Even the employer’s bankers knew that Reilly had access to the online banking facilities. During an attempt to transfer funds, Reilly experienced with the online banking facilities and she had to seek assistance from a manager at the bank in order to make the payment. He remarked that, strictly speaking, she was an unauthorised person, but despite this awareness on his part he did nothing concrete to prevent Reilly from continuing to use the system.

Conclusion

I am prepared to go further than Lord Summers and speculate as to the lack of cases of this type. There are a number of very practical reasons why employers have tended not to pursue claims against employees:

  • It may not make much economic sense i.e. you might obtain a successful court decree for damages against an individual, but the practicalities of obtaining this sum from a low or modestly paid employee are almost nil; and
  • The strong aversion to negative publicity i.e. the fear of the reputational damage done by effectively putting the negligent acts of their employees in the spotlight of legal action.

Again, as Lord Summers said: it is a “tragic case” and the fraudster is still at large.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 20 November 2019