The founder of a Dublin restaurant group had a car seized from him outside the Labour Court by its new management while he was inside pursuing an appeal against his dismissal, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has heard.
A barrister acting for one of Padraic Hanley’s sons argued the confiscation of the car made it clear how “utterly bitter” the dispute was.
“It’s our car,” one of the firm’s new directors replied in cross-examination.
The tribunal noted on Tuesday the failure of negotiations aimed at resolving “for once and for all” the multiple strands of a three-year legal dispute in which Mr Hanley and his sons have faced off against the new owners of PBR Restaurants Ltd, who acquired the family firm when it went into examinership in 2019.
Mr Hanley and his three sons have all pursued claims under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 alleging termination in a “sham” redundancy process in summer 2020 – with the case of Stephen Hanley the last to be called on for hearing.
In decisions now under appeal by the firm, the WRC found defects in the redundancy processes and, ruling their dismissals unfair, awarded a total of €50,000 to David and Philip Hanley, the eldest and youngest of the brothers employed by the firm.
A claim by their father, Padraic Hanley, was dismissed on the basis that he was not an employee of the firm before the examinership process and therefore had too little service to pursue an unfair dismissal case before the WRC – a finding he too is appealing to the Labour Court.
Other matters in the dispute are the subject of separate proceedings in the High Court.
A fourth claim by Stephen Hanley, the middle brother and the longest-serving of the sons working in the firm, was adjourned in March, when the family’s barrister said an outline agreement had been reached between the parties.
Reopening the case on Tuesday, WRC adjudicating officer Aideen Collard said: “I understand efforts to resolve the matter otherwise haven’t been successful.”
The company denies unfair dismissal in all cases – arguing the redundancies were genuine and based on the needs of the business, which it said was “top-heavy” and paying salaries it could not sustain to the Hanley family.
Stephen Hanley told the WRC on Tuesday that trading projections drawn up for the new management, cited as a basis for the redundancies, had used trading figures for the “slow” months of January and February to come to a figure for the full year.
He said he had been told in redundancy consultation meetings that he could apply for a role paying €14 an hour based in Malahide – earnings he said would be consumed after tax by a return taxi fare to his home in Stillorgan if he had to work a late shift, as his company car was also taken away.
The firm took the position that with 12 years’ experience in the firm, Stephen Hanley ought to have come to the redundancy consultation meetings with proposals of his own for alternatives to redundancy.
In evidence to the tribunal in his son’s case, Padraic Hanley said that the investors who bought the group’s Fish Shack restaurants out of the examinership process had “reneged” on an alleged deal to give the family a 50 per cent stake in the business once a sum of €600,000 had been repaid.
Two of its restaurants, Ouzos in Dalkey and Kelly & Coopers in Blackrock, were sold off to separate investors, with the new investors retaining four cafe units trading under the Fish Shack brand and a small fish-processing operation in Northern Ireland which supplied the group.
Mr Hanley’s account of the alleged deal was disputed by company director Ian Higgins, the only respondent witness, who said the only evidence for any agreement was what had been recorded on paper.
Micheal Kinsley, appearing for Stephen Hanley and instructed by Daniel O’Connell of Kean’s Solicitors, said Mr Higgins had given a “dishonest account” of matters by stating that relations were “amicable” between the parties.
“There was quite a bitter dispute between you and the Hanleys,” Mr Kinsley told the witness.
Referring to a date earlier this year when Mr Hanley attended for his appeal to the Labour Court, Mr Kinsley said: “The car Mr Hanley drove – there’s a dispute on it – Mr Hanley will say that when he was there it was confiscated [by the firm].”
“Yes. It’s our car. It was stolen from the company,” Mr Higgins said, adding that the matter had been reported to the gardaí.
“The guards stated it was a civil matter,” Mr Kinsley said.
“The asset was on the company balance sheet,” Mr Higgins said.
Mr Kinsley then put it to Mr Higgins that he had used the Covid-19 crisis to make the Hanleys redundant “in the same opportunistic way you used the Labour Court dispute to put an end to the dispute over the car”.
“The reason you can’t answer questions about redundancy is because it had nothing to do with redundancy,” Mr Kinsley said.
“I didn’t hear a question, but I don’t accept any of your claims. I fully reject it,” Mr Higgins said.
“It was an utterly bitter dispute. “[The pandemic] was used as an opportunity to get rid of these people,” Mr Kinsley said.
“This was an operational change. The company was looking at its overall structure and the company was top heavy,” said the company’s solicitor, Gavin Comiskey of Peninsula Business Services, who said the redundancy process employed by the firm was “solid”.
“Those were the roles that had to go, and they happened to be the Hanley family. It’s usually the case in a family business that the top roles would be held by family members,” he said.
Adjudicating officer Aideen Collard put it to him that the business had “recovered”.
“Yes, and with a lot of hard work, a lot of free work on [Mr Higgins’s] behalf, and the other directors, in ensuring the business was viable,” Mr Comiskey said.
After taking evidence over the course of seven hours on Tuesday, Ms Collard closed the hearing to consider her decision, which is to be issued in writing to the parties later in the summer.