Ms Agoreyo was an experienced primary school teacher for the London Borough of Lambeth. She taught a class of up to 29 five and six year old children, two of whom exhibited extremely challenging behaviour.
Allegations were made against her that she had used unreasonable force towards one of these two children on three occasions, essentially that she had “dragged” a child out of the classroom or along a corridor and that she had carried a child out of the classroom. Two of these instances had been looked into by the Head shortly afterwards who found that Ms Agoreyo had used reasonable force.
The Executive Head of the school then informed her that she was suspended in light of these allegations. She almost immediately asked if she could submit a resignation letter and the Executive Head agreed.
A letter of suspension setting out the allegations stated:
“The suspension is a neutral action and is not a disciplinary sanction. The purpose of the suspension is to allow the investigation to be conducted fairly.”
Ms Agoreyo challenged the lawfulness of her suspension as being a repudiatory breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence. She did not argue that the allegations against her should not be investigated, but that suspension was not reasonable or necessary in order for the investigation to take place.
The High Court criticised the process for a number of reasons:
- there was no evidence of any attempt to ascertain Ms Agoreyo’s version of events, or the Head’s knowledge of the events, prior to the Executive Head taking the decision to suspend;
- there was no evidence of any consideration of alternatives to suspension; and
- the letter did not explain why an investigation could not be conducted fairly without the need for suspension.
These factors, he said, led to the conclusion that suspension was “largely a knee-jerk reaction”. Suspension against this background was sufficient to breach the implied term of trust and confidence, particularly given that the Head had previously investigated two of the incidents and had not considered them worthy of disciplinary action.
This case reinforces the great care an employer must take when considering whether to suspend an employee in the wake of alleged misconduct. Even (or especially) in cases where the conduct is extremely serious, suspension can never be a knee-jerk reaction and the employer must carefully and pro-actively consider what the true purpose of a suspension would be and whether there might be any alternative. Such considerations should be fully documented. Including a statement in the suspension letter that suspension is a neutral act and implies no criticism of the employee is no substitute. Including an express right to suspend the employee in an employment contract may also assist in such a situation.