The case of Luke v Stoke-On-Trent City Council , involved an employee who had been employed as a special needs teacher at the local authority’s Assessing Continuing Education Pupil Referral Unit (“the ACE Centre”) since 1996. The ACE Centre was the only one of its kind operated by the local authority, and under the terms of her contract of employment (“the ACE Contract”), the employee was required to work at the ACE centre for 12 and three quarter hours per week.
From April 2003, the employee had a separate contract of engagement with the local authority governing the terms of her appointment at a different unit. Problems arose between the employee and the head teacher of the ACE Centre. Between October 2002 and April 2003, the employee was absent due to ill health. She alleged that she had been the victim of bullying and harassment by the head teacher of the ACE Centre.
The local authority commissioned an independent investigator to examine the employee’s complaints. All of the employee’s complaints were dismissed except for one, and the investigator proposed a return to work action plan designed to assist her in resuming her work at the ACE Centre. The employee indicated that whilst she was willing to take part in the action plan, she was not willing to accept the conclusions drawn by the investigator.
The local authority took the stance that the action plan would have been unworkable on that basis.
On the 13th of June 2003, the local authority formulated a proposal that the employee’s return to the ACE Centre would be deferred, perhaps forever. She would be found equivalent hours performing similar work within other parts of the authority.
Initially, the employee agreed to that proposal in principle but, in August 2003, she indicated that she found the proposal unacceptable and that she was still intent upon resuming her employment at the ACE Centre. The local authority maintained its position that the employee’s return to work at the ACE centre remained unworkable given her refusal to accept the conclusions of the investigator.
Several alternative proposals were suggested by the local authority which involved the employee working at sites other than at the ACE Centre. The proposed alternatives were deemed unsuitable by the employee, who insisted upon a return to the ACE Centre. Throughout that period, the employee continued to receive remuneration under the terms of the ACE Contract.
Finally, on the 11th of February 2004, the local authority ceased payment of the employee’s wages. The employee brought a complaint before the employment tribunal alleging that at all material times she had been ready and willing to do the only work that she had been contractually obliged to do, namely her work at the ACE Centre. She therefore submitted that her wages had been unlawfully deducted within the meaning of Part II of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
The tribunal dismissed the employee’s claim. It found that the local authority had reasonably reached the conclusion that her return to work at the ACE Centre was unworkable in the light of her refusal to accept the conclusions of the investigator or the terms of the proposed action plan. In those circumstances, despite the express terms of the ACE Contract, there had been an implied term of the contract permitting the local authority to require her to work at a location, other than that specified in the contract, provided that the employee suffered no detriment. However this could only happen whilst a long term solution to the question of her return to work at the ACE Centre was being resolved.
The employee appealed.
The issue which fell to be determined before the Employment Appeals Tribunal was whether the local authority had been contractually entitled to require the employee to work otherwise than at the ACE Centre.
The appeal was dismissed. It was held that where a written contract clearly defined an employee’s contractual duties, the employee ought to be entitled to proceed upon the basis that the employee was not obliged to undertake different duties. In such situations, the finding of an implied obligation to undertake work outside the express terms of the contract would only have been permissible in exceptional circumstances. Such exceptional circumstance being where the requirement was justified, the work was suitable, and the employee suffered no detriment in terms of contractual benefits or status due to the change of duties on a temporary basis.
In this case, the view adopted by the employee in relation to the conclusions of the investigator and the terms of the action plan had given rise to such exceptional circumstances. The tribunal had properly considered all the relevant factors in reaching its conclusions, and in those circumstances had been entitled to make the finding that the ACE Contract contained an implied term entitling the local authority to require the employee to conduct work outside the scope of the express terms of the contract.