A trainee equestrian instructor who was sacked because his employer saw an alleged threat of violence in a text the worker sent about bringing his relatives down to his workplace has failed in his claim for unfair dismissal.
“We will see who has big balls when my family and [my partner’s family] come to meet her on Friday,” the man wrote in a message to a colleague submitted in evidence to the Workplace Relations Commission.
Shane Kehoe accused the Fettercairn Youth Horse Project (FYHP) of unfairly dismissing him in an attempt to avoid paying him redundancy in a complaint to the WRC.
A solicitor for the youth project denied unfair dismissal and said its board was “immediately and extremely concerned about a threat of violence occurring in the yard” in view of the contents of the text, which was brought to its attention on June 28th, 2019, a fortnight after it was sent.
Michelle Quinn of Colm O’Cochlain & Company Solicitors, who appeared for the horse centre, said an emergency board meeting was called the same day and its minutes were submitted in evidence.
Ms Quinn said representatives from the Tallaght Travellers’ Community Development Project and other board members present came to the conclusion that the possibility of the two families coming to the yard to confront the manager “represented a threat of violence which was real”.
She said the horse project took advice from gardaí about the matter and decided to close to their yard to the public on that day.
“The respondent was at all times concerned for the safety and welfare of the relevant staff member and for the children, parents, young helpers, and other staff who would be present on the yard and to whom it owed a duty of care,” Ms Quinn submitted.
“There was a genuine fear of a threat of violence and the possibility of harm occurring to a member of staff. The respondent could not simply ignore that,” she added.
‘No previous disciplinary history’
Gerry Fitzgibbon, representing Mr Kehoe, told the hearing that “no alternative to dismissal was ever considered by the employer, despite there being no previous disciplinary history or sanctions against him or any such proceedings pending”.
“The matter was mishandled and grossly unfair and a cynical attempt to avoid paying the complainant a redundancy payment,” he added.
He said his client had never been asked at the disciplinary hearing to explain or clarify what he meant by the “big balls” text.
The emergency board meeting minutes stated there was a need to “avert possible criminal action” which Mr Fitzgibbon said was “without basis”.
“[My client] worked for the Fettercairn Youth Horse Project for a number of years and his wife and her family were well known,” he said. “There had never been any incident in that time which would give rise to the belief that both families ‘represented a threat of violence which was real’,” he added.
“Such accusations had the potential to bring feuding to the complainant’s door and to his [that of] his wife’s family who are members of the Travelling Community,” Mr Fitzgibbon added.
He said Mr Kehoe’s meaning in the text was that he “wanted to meet with his manager to discuss his concerns rather than any perceived underlying threat”.
The youth project took the position that this did not stand up to scrutiny.
Mr Fitzgibbon added that some members of the disciplinary panel which investigated his client for alleged gross misconduct were involved in the final decision to dismiss him.
In a decision published on Sunday, adjudicating officer Orla Jones noted that Mr Kehoe had “sought to assert that the text message was referring to a scheduled meeting with the respondent” involving his family and in-laws. She found there was no such arrangement .
Ms Jones noted that one witness for the youth project said “her concerns were increased” by Mr Kehoe’s mother driving around the yard “at speed in a dangerous fashion which had the potential to startle the ponies” on one occasion.
The same witness also mentioned references in Mr Kehoe’s texts to having “nothing to lose” and “pulling the manager with him”, Ms Jones noted.
There had been “procedural difficulties” with the dismissal but these were not enough to render it procedurally unfair, she wrote.
In a setting including children and potentially dangerous animals “it is clear that the respondent could not take a chance,” she wrote.
She found the youth project’s actions were not unreasonable and the decision to dismiss was not unfair – and declared Mr Kehoe’s claim not well founded.