Outer House dismisses damages claim by former teacher with mental health difficulties made to undergo competence process

Outer House dismisses damages claim by former teacher with mental health difficulties made to undergo competence process

A former primary school teacher who raised an action seeking damages for personal injury from her former employer has had her claim dismissed by a judge in the Outer House of the Court of Session.

It was the pursuer’s case that her employer did not take reasonable care for her safety and exposed her to unnecessary risk of psychiatric injury. It was accepted that the parties’ names should be anonymised due to the severity of the pursuer’s mental health problems.

The case was heard by Lord Summers, with E MacKenzie QC appearing for the pursuer and C Murray and C Fraser for the defender.

Out to get her

The pursuer, T, worked at AW Primary School between 2005 and 2016. She went on a period of maternity leave in 2011 and returned in 2012. On her return, the head teacher arranged for T to be observed as she thought that the pursuer did not have good classroom management skills. The pursuer would engage with three different head teachers at AW School from 2012 to 2016.

The pursuer had experienced mental health issues from the 1990s onwards, including paranoia concerning previous head teachers at other schools. On 25 March 2011, 15 days after giving birth to her daughter, she was diagnosed as having an adjustment disorder with a brief depressive reaction and in 2013 was taking four different medications.

It was decided by the second head teacher that a formal competence process should be commenced in respect of the pursuer. During this time, the pursuer’s depression worsened, and she became convinced that her head teacher and HR department were “out to get her” and intended to procure her dismissal. It was eventually agreed that the pursuer should be sent to another school.

The pursuer was placed on precautionary suspension in October 2016 following the transfer and was later admitted to a psychiatric ward after trying to commit suicide. She reached an agreement for her termination in May 2017, which was followed by another suicide attempt and a hospital admission. She was later discharged from hospital and placed in the care of her parents.

It was the pursuer’s case that she had been inadequately supported by the defender and had been “set up to fail” by the transfer. The deterioration in her mental health had been caused by the commencement of the competence process, which had caused her stress and anxiety. In her view, the defender had not been entitled to commence that process and the way it had gone about it was in breach of its duty of care to her.

Knew nothing of circumstances

In his decision, Lord Summers said of the competence process: “The pursuer’s belief that the Competence Process was used to force her out of teaching was not in my opinion justified. The pursuer’s previous head teacher, RM also thought that the pursuer’s teaching was deficient. I accept that RM did not initiate a competence process but it is clear from evidence that RM shared NT’s concerns.”

He continued: “There is little indication that the pursuer’s stress and anxiety was materially affected by the Competence Process or the arrangements made in that connection. I consider that it was the pursuer’s beliefs about NT that caused stress and anxiety. The pursuer’s belief that the Human Resources department was opposed to her also fuelled her stress and anxiety. I am satisfied that NT was justified in commencing the Competence Process and did not do so for improper motives.”

Addressing the duty of care issue, Lord Summers observed: “It does not seem to me that [the information held by the defender] would entitle me to hold that [it] should reasonably have foreseen that the Competence Process would expose the pursuer to the risk of injury. It knew nothing about the pursuer’s circumstances in 2009 or the relevance of the information for her situation in 2013.”

He went on to say: “Had it considered the matter, the defender would have been entitled to take account of the fact that the Competence Process incorporated psychological support in the form of a mentor. This was a standard support measure. I do not consider that it had any information to suggest that this was inadequate.”

Lord Summers concluded: “In light of the foregoing I do not consider that the defender was under a duty to seek advice in 2013 from Human Resources specialists with expertise in psychiatrically vulnerable employees, or from senior education managers or Occupational Health specialists with a view to reducing the risk of psychiatric injury or the other legal duties pleaded by the pursuer.”

Decree of absolvitor was therefore pronounced in favour of the defender.

Share icon
Share this article: