Damages Awarded for Distress, Hurt and Humiliation

Hall v City Country Hotel Management Pty Ltd & Ors (No.2) [2014] FCCA 2317 (10 October 2014)

The poor handling of pay dispute has resulted in an employee being awarded damages for hurt and humiliation, in addition to the original claims he made against his employer, and then some.

The case concerned a bar attendant who noticed he was not receiving a casual loading in his pay despite his hours and days being quite irregular. And there was no written contract for him as a part time employee. When he raised this with this employer, he was given short shrift and then, to rub salt into the wounds, a short shift – then no more work at all.

The employee had checked his entitlements and had made a fairly straightforward claim to his employer, setting out his evidence and indicating he should be paid in accordance with the award. Importantly, the evidence showed that the employee had first raised his underpayment query verbally with senior managers and nothing happened.

The employee waited two weeks and then committed his complaint to writing, and that in turn commenced a damning paper trail. Despite being ignored, the tone and measure of his e-mail was moderate in the circumstances. The response he got was less than cordial, with the payroll officer admonishing the employee, saying she would ‘not be dictated to by any staff member’ and that she would ‘communicate with the employee as she saw fit’.

This aggressive tone was a silly mistake. The court found that this, along with other demeaning responses to the employee from senior management, constituted fair grounds to find the employee had been distressed and humiliated.

The employee’s original claim was of the order of $2,500 but by the time the matter went to court the costs began to mount. In addition to this original underpayment, the court added nearly $5,000 in ‘lost’ wages, as well as $2,500 for hurt, distress and humiliation. All up, with penalties, superannuation and damages, the $2,500 became $11,300.

But it could get worse. This amount was awarded against the legal entity that employed the bar attendant, not the directors and senior managers. The court stood over the matter generally to allow the employee to pursue them in a separate claim. Given the poor view the court has taken of their behaviour in the first round, it could get very expensive for those managers.

The case demonstrates how important it is to treat a complaint about wages promptly and to ensure payroll staff do not take umbrage at enquiries but deal with them professionally.