Sheehy v Ryan

JurisdictionIreland
JudgeMr. Justice Geoghegan
Judgment Date09 April 2008
Neutral Citation[2008] IESC 14
CourtSupreme Court
Docket Number[S.C. No.106 of 2004],No. 106/04
Date09 April 2008
BETWEEN/
MARY SHEEHY
Appellant/ Plaintiff
and
LAURENCE RYAN AND JAMES MORIARTY
Respondents/ Defendants

Geoghegan J.

Kearns J.

Finnegan J.

No. 106/04

THE SUPREME COURT

Abstract:

Employment law - Permanent and pensionable - Tenure - Whether the appellant's employment was terminable on reasonable notice.

Facts: The appellant, whose employment as diocesan secretary with the respondent was terminated by reason of redundancy, claimed that Ms Justice Carroll of the High Court misdirected herself in law in arriving at the conclusion that the appellant's contract of employment was terminable on reasonable notice and further that the appellant had been given reasonable notice by the respondent. The appellant argued that her employment was permanent and pensionable and essentially could not be terminated until she reached retirement age.

Held by the Supreme Court (Geoghegan J; Kearns, Finnegan JJ concurring) in dismissing the appeal: That the learned High Court Judge was correct in her view that the appellant was employed pursuant to an employment agreement terminable on reasonable notice.

Reporter: L.O'S.

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JUDGMENT of Mr. Justice Geoghegan delivered the 9th

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day of April 2008

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This is a rather sad dispute involving three successive bishops of Kildare and Leighlin and a diocesan secretary. Although the litigation has engendered considerable heat and a great deal of paper including elaborate written submissions to this court on behalf of the appellant raising all kinds of issues, the reality is that both in the High Court and on appeal in this court there was really only one issue to be considered.

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The appellant/plaintiff was the diocesan secretary to whom I have referred. The second-named respondent/defendant and the only other party to the proceedings for the purposes of both the High Court hearing and the hearing of this appeal is the current Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. The first-named respondent/defendant is Bishop Moriarty's immediate predecessor who is now deceased. Despite being named as respondent on the notice of appeal, he is not, of course, in fact a party for the purposes of the appeal and his personal representatives are not before the court. The single issue relates to the terms of employment of the appellant. Specifically, it relates to one aspect of those terms, that is to say, the tenure of her employment. The appellant's employment as diocesan secretary was purported to be terminated by the service upon her of notice. It is not in dispute that if her contract of employment was terminable upon service of reasonable notice (which most contracts of employment are) the notice served in this case was reasonable. It is the appellant's case, however, that she was originally employed by the immediate predecessor of Bishop Ryan who was Bishop Lennon and that under the terms agreed between her and Bishop Lennon, her employment was to be "permanent and pensionable"an expression not actually forming part of any express contract of employment and at any rate an expression to which in these proceedings she and her legal advisers have assigned an incorrect meaning. That meaning strongly argued for by Mr. Gerard Hogan, S.C., her counsel, is that in the absence of some serious illness or misbehaviour she was entitled to remain in her position until she reached retirement age (not precisely defined) and that her contract could not be terminated by reasonable notice or otherwise against her will whether the purpose be redundancy or any other purpose. In support of this proposition, Mr. Hogan relied primarily on the speeches in the House of Lords in the case of McClelland v. Northern Ireland General Health Services Board [1957] 1 W.L.R. 594 .I will be considering that case in some detail later on in the judgment. There is also some relevant Irish case law to which I will refer in due course. By way of general comment, however, at this stage, I would take the view that every contract of employment is different and that case law is of marginal assistance only in construing the terms of any given contract. In that sense, I accept the proposition of Mr. Hogan that there is nothing conceptually offensive to the law in the notion of a permanent non-terminable contract. But where there is not a precise written contract setting out precise terms or where there is some ambiguity as to the terms and the court has to determine on foot of evidence what the real contract is, the courts, undoubtedly, resort to guidance from other cases as to the proper approach to construction. In that sense, the case law is useful and can be properly considered.

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The High Court action to which this appeal relates was heard and determined by Carroll J. and she held that the contract of employment in this case was terminable on reasonable notice and that such reasonable notice had been given. She also accepted that there was genuine redundancy but that was a secondary decision. Independently of the redundancy issue altogether, she held against the plaintiff that the contract was terminable on reasonable notice. What this court has to consider now is whether the learned High Court judge misdirected herself in law in arriving at that conclusion. For this purpose, it is necessary to review the salient aspects of the evidence.

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The history of this employment begins in approximately July 1974. At that time, the appellant held a post described as " clerical officer" in Carlow Regional Technical College. She had been in that employment since 1971. Prior to taking up that employment, she was "Executive Officer" in the Central Bank of Ireland. Her evidence was that she changed jobs because her father was not in good health and she wanted to live near her home. The Central Bank agreed to keep her job open for her and indeed she had decided to return there when her father's health took a turn for the worse and she remained in the Regional Technical College though still with an understanding that she probably could return to the Central Bank. For the purpose of this litigation, her Central Bank position is not really relevant. What is put forward as being relevant, however, was her position in the Carlow Regional Technical College. It was while the appellant was in that employment and in the context of her position in the college under the VEC that she was approached by the late Bishop Lennon. He knew nothing about her Central Bank involvement or in so far as he did, it is not relevant. In her evidence, the appellant explained that a priest of the diocese, a Fr. Kelly arranged a meeting between her and Bishop Lennon after he had informed her that Bishop Lennon was interested in procuring a secretary to assist him. The appellant had a number of meetings with the Bishop while she continued to be employed with the Carlow VEC. In the course of these discussions or negotiations, the appellant made it clear that she was not interested in a mere typing position as she had been accustomed to carrying out significant administrative work in the college. It seems clear from her answers that each party was being somewhat tentative as to what the nature of any proposed contract would be. The Bishop said that he had never had this kind of assistance before. He thought that as time passed the work would increase. Early on in her oral evidence in the High Court, the appellant, describing what Bishop Lennon said to her, said the following:

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"He said that he was conscious of my being in a permanent and pensionable post where I was working, in the Regional College. I did not mention to him the prospect I had of going back to the Central Bank. He said that he did not want me to be at any loss for having left there and that he would attach my pay rate to the salary scale I was on at the time and he would add twenty five per cent in view of the confidentiality and nature of the work. He was also conscious that I would not have any chance of career advancement as I might have if I

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was a priest serving there. Priests could go on to be bishops but I would not. In a later answer the appellant said that she had sought further reassurance from the Bishop and that he had reiterated that it was not intended that she should be at a loss for having moved and that she would be moving to an equally secure job permanent and pensionable. "

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When asked what did she understand by that she said that her understanding was that "it was the equivalent to where I was in terms of a job for life, if I wanted, till my sixty-fifth birthday. "

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When her counsel asked her about whether there had been any discussion about pension, the appellant said the following.

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'He said he would put arrangements in place so that there would be a pension for me, he would set aside money in lieu of pension, because it would not come automatically as it would if I had remained on with the local authority. "

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It seems clear particularly from the later evidence that no precise arrangements relating to pension were ever agreed though there would have been clearly an understanding that some kind of reasonable pension arrangements would be put in place. It would not seem to me on the evidence that either Bishop Lennon or either of the later bishops ever agreed that the appellant was to have the same pension arrangements as she would have enjoyed if she had remained in the VEC.

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On foot of those relatively loose arrangements relating to her new job, the appellant took up position in the diocese on the 29th July, 1974. Initially, she was not diocesan secretary. She was simply secretary to Bishop Lennon and she remained in that position until 1977 when the Bishop appointed her diocesan secretary jointly with one of his priests. She was still diocesan secretary when Bishop Lennon retired on the 10th December, 1987. He was succeeded on that date by the first-named defendant, Bishop Ryan. The appellant...

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