Ruffley v Board of Management of Saint Anne's School

CourtSupreme Court
JudgeO'Donnell J.,Mr Justice Peter Charleton
Judgment Date26 May 2017
Neutral Citation[2017] IESC 33
Docket Number[S.C. No. 24 of 2016],Appeal No: 2016/24 Supreme Court appeal number: 2016 no 000024 [2017] IESC 000 Court of Appeal record number: 2014 no 298 [2015] IECA 287 High Court record number: 2011 no 3819 P [2014] IEHC 235
Date26 May 2017
Una Ruffley
- and-
The Board of Management of St. Anne's School

[2017] IESC 33

O'Donnell Donal J.

Charleton J.

Denham C.J.

O'Donnell Donal J.

McKechnie J.

MacMenamin J.

Dunne J.

Charleton J.

O'Malley Iseult J.

Appeal No: 2016/24

Supreme Court appeal number: 2016 no 000024

[2017] IESC 000

Court of Appeal record number: 2014 no 298

[2015] IECA 287

High Court record number: 2011 no 3819 P

[2014] IEHC 235

An Chuirt Uachtarach

The Supreme Court

Damages – Bullying – Liability – Appellant seeking to appeal against Court of Appeal findings on liability and damages – Whether the matters alleged give rise to a successful claim for bullying

Facts: The appellant, Ms Ruffley, was employed as a Special Needs Assistant in the National School of the respondent, Board of Management of St Anne's School. She received a severe warning in a disciplinary process in the school because of an incident that occurred on 14th September 2009. The Board decided that the appellant should be given a sanction just below dismissal in the form of a severe grade warning. On 27th January 2010, there was a meeting between the Principal and the appellant that was intended to get closure on the matter but it gave rise to a complete conflict of evidence. On 29th of January 2010, the appellant’s Union representative wrote to the Chairman of the Board appealing against the sanction imposed on the grounds, firstly, that the process was unfair, secondly, that the school had not expressly prohibited locking the Sensory Room door and thirdly, that a final written warning was too severe a sanction. The Board repudiated any allegation of wrongdoing. The appellant continued to work until September 2010, when the plaintiff experienced an otherwise minor exchange over alleged lateness for work as the last straw and went on certified sick leave due to work-related stress. The appellant claimed damages from the respondent, as her employers, for bullying and harassment. In the judgment of the High Court, delivered on 9th May 2014, O’Neill J awarded damages to the appellant in the total sum of €255,276 and costs on foot of her claim. The respondent appealed to the Court of Appeal against the findings on liability and damages. The Court of Appeal (Ryan P) allowed the respondent’s appeal. The appellant appealed to the Supreme Court against that judgment.

Held by O’Donnell J, the other Justices concurring and with Charleton J also handing down a judgment, that while the matters alleged do not give rise to a successful claim for bullying, the Court readily acknowledged that the degree of judicial disagreement demonstrated that this was by no means clear-cut. In those circumstances, the Court held that it may be necessary to hear argument as to any consequential orders but O’Donnell J indicated a provisional view that the Court would be very slow to order the appellant to repay to the respondent the sum of money paid as a condition of obtaining the partial stay, or pay costs. O’Donnell J held that it may be necessary to reflect the fact that the appellant would have been justified in coming to court to have it determined that the procedures applied to her were flawed. O’Donnell J held that it would be desirable that the parties could reach their own agreement on these matters but in the event that there is no such agreement, the Court would be prepared to hear argument and make a final decision in that regard.

O’Donnell J held that the appeal should be dismissed.

Appeal dismissed.

Judgment of O'Donnell J. delivered the 26th of May 2017

This case has already been the subject of a detailed High Court judgment (O'Néill J.), [2014] I.E.H.C. 235, and three considered judgments of the Court of Appeal, [2015] I.E.C.A. 287. Normally in such circumstances, it would not be necessary to repeat the facts in particular detail. However, this is an unusual case, and since there has been considerable disagreement as to how to characterise the facts in this case, it is necessary to give some account of the background to this complex case.


By the time of the events in 2009 and 2010 which are the subject matter of these proceedings, the plaintiff, Una Ruffley, had been employed as a Special Needs Assistant (‘SNA’) in St. Anne's School at the Curragh, County Kildare for more than ten years, without notable incident. That school, although treated as a national school, catered exclusively for children with intellectual disabilities and indeed took children from the age of 4 up to 18 years of age. The school had been founded by KARE, an organisation of parents of children with physical and intellectual disabilities. St. Anne's was under the patronage of KARE, and the Chief Executive of that body, Mr. Christy Lynch, was also the Chairman of the Board of Management of St. Anne's.


St. Anne's is a small institution catering for between 70 and 75 children, and in 2009 employed 14 teachers and 26 SNAs. The school also had available to it external services such as occupational therapy. It was not in dispute that until the events here described, she had performed her work satisfactorily, and enjoyed good relations with the teachers, others SNAs and the principal, Ms. Dempsey, who figures significantly in the account of this case.


For about five years prior to September 2009, the school had a sensory room used to develop the sensory perception of pupils by exposing them to a variety of experiences such as music, vibration, movement, light and colour. The room had previously been used as a store room for computer equipment. It could be locked from the outside with a key, although the evidence was that was never used. It could also be closed from the inside by simply turning a lock to either open or close the door in a fashion which it was said was similar to that in use on a standard toilet door. That lock gave rise to a dispute which has meant that Ms. Ruffley has not worked in St. Anne's or anywhere else for more than 6 years now, and has led, through an eleven day hearing in the High Court, and a two day appeal to the Court of Appeal, to this Court.

(i) 14th September 2009

On this day Ms. Ruffley was in the room working with a young pupil. Unusually, as he was normally an extremely active child who suffered from ADHD, he fell fast asleep. Ms. Ruffley went out and phoned the teacher Ms. Rachel Bramhall, to ask for instructions. She was told to leave the child asleep, and if he had not awoken within 20 minutes to bring him back to the class. The teacher however being concerned contacted the headmistress in turn. Ms. Dempsey went to the room where she discovered that the door had been locked from the inside, and only gained entry on her third attempt. However, the issue of the door being locked was not raised then.

(ii) 15th September 2009

The following day Ms. Ruffley attended work and was asked by Ms. Dempsey to come to her office. Once there, Ms. Dempsey informed her that she was handling the incident as a disciplinary matter. Ms. Ruffley initially thought that this was because the child had been asleep, but Ms. Dempsey explained it was because the door had been locked. It appears from Ms. Dempsey's note referred to in the judgment of the High Court that Ms. Ruffley said at this point that she hoped the principal would deal with the other SNAs that did this. The principal's response was apparently that this was another issue for another day. Ms. Ruffley was requested to return to the office at 2.30pm and informed that someone could attend with her, if she wished.

(iii) 15th September 2009: 2.30pm

Ms. Ruffley returned to the principal's office accompanied by Ms. Louise Webb, a fellow SNA. The principal had also arranged for Ms. Bramhall, the teacher involved, to be there also. Ms. Ruffley accepted that she had locked the door and said it had been her practice to do so for a number of years both to prevent other pupils entering and disrupting the session and to prevent children, some of whom were very active, from running out of the room. Such children were often described as ‘runners’ and as it happened the child involved here was known to be a ‘runner’. Ms. Ruffley also claimed that the door had been locked on other occasions including one in April 2009, when she alleged the principal had brought visitors to the room. Ms. Dempsey responded apparently that she had never been aware that the room had been locked and if so would have raised the issue. There was some further discussion of the care of the child in question. It is not suggested that any specific disciplinary action was discussed or suggested at this meeting.

(iv) 18th September 2009

There was a further meeting between Ms. Ruffley, the principal, and Ms. Bramhall. This meeting discussed the care to be given to the child, and it was agreed that over a four week period the plaintiff would complete a weekly form indicating the manner in which the therapy for the child had progressed.

Letter of the 18th September 2009 (?)

It is important to note at the outset, that this letter is disputed. The principal gave evidence however that she had handed a letter to Ms. Ruffley dated the 18th September, 2009. That letter recorded that as Ms. Ruffley did not appear clear as to the protocol surrounding the use of the room ‘we are not going to take disciplinary action’. The letter also recorded however that Ms. Ruffley's care of the child in question would be reviewed over a three month period. It continued ‘if the required improvement is not made or if there is any such breach of discipline in any aspect of your work performance, this may result in disciplinary action’. The plaintiff emphatically denied ever having received the letter and the trial judge accepted she had not been given that letter then or since.

(v) Four weeks later (October 2009)

In the review, Ms....

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