By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Lickety Split employee, whose husband conducted a year-long harassment campaign against her boss over suspicions they were having an affair, has won her claim for unfair dismissal.
Justice Indra Charles, in a September 14, 2017, ruling found that the ice cream/deli business and its managing director, Llewellyn Burrows, "don't have a leg to stand on" over the dismissal of former manager, Sharmean Woodside.
Recording that several "volte faces" were performed over the rationale for Ms Woodside's dismissal, the Supreme Court warned Bahamian employers that they needed to be "decisive" when terminating employees and not later "go fishing for other grounds to justify the real reason".
Justice Charles' written found that Ms Woodside was dismissed because she informed her husband of Mr Burrows' suspicions he was behind a harassment campaign that saw the Lickety Split managing director receive up to 80 phone calls. This resulted in a confrontation in Mr Burrows' office where the husband was "loud and boisterous", leading to Ms Woodside's dismissal. However, Justice Charles found that Mr Burrows triggered this by divulging the police probe into the harassment, and that his employee could not be expected to keep the information from her husband.
There is no evidence to suggest Ms Woodside was having an affair with her boss, and Justice Charles made no such finding. She did, though, rule that her husband was behind the harassment campaign.
The trouble began when Ms Woodside, who had risen from pantry supervisor to manager during a 16-year career with Lickety Split, was summoned to Mr Burrows' office on February 4, 2014.
"During that meeting, certain personal matters arose regarding numerous harassing anonymous telephone calls that Mr Burrows was receiving," Justice Charles wrote. "Mr Burrows suspected that the anonymous caller was Ms Woodside's husband. He communicated his suspicion to her.
"Ms Woodside then left the meeting and called her husband to pick her up. She disclosed to her husband what took place in the meeting. Her husband wanted to see Mr Burrows, so they arrived at Mr Burrows' office.
"Her husband was loud and boisterous. As a result, Mr Burrows asked them to leave his office. In the interim, Mr Burrows continued his investigation into the harassing telephone calls. He had already made a report to the Wulff Road Police Station and the fraud department at the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC)."
Ms Woodside went on vacation 11 days later, and was due to return to work on March 1, 2014, but Lickety Split summarily terminated her services - and paid her $7,752 - on February 28.
The reason cited by the company was dishonesty, and Ms Woodside subsequently launched her claim for unfair dismissal under the Employment Act's provisions.
During trial evidence, Mr Burrows revealed that the husband first accused him of having an affair with Ms Woodside in "loud and rowdy" telephone calls made one year earlier.
"Mr Burrows said he was shocked, and admonished him not to call again," Justice Charles wrote of the trial testimony. "But he continued to receive numerous telephone calls, sometimes up to 80 calls a day, and often in the early hours of the morning, interrupting him and his wife from their sleep."
Mr Burrows was reluctant to change his phone numbers because of their importance to his business, but became suspicious the source was Ms Woodside's husband when a voice message was left and he could hear her arguing with a man in the background.
This led to the February 4, 2014, meeting and ultimate confrontation in the Lickety Split offices. Justice Charles found that, based on BTC's probe and the voice message, Ms Woodside's husband was the person behind the harassment, and that he behaved in a rowdy manner at the office.
However, Mr Burrows conceded at cross-examination that Ms Woodside was really dismissed for "breach of trust" in divulging the contents of their meeting to her husband, and not for the originally stated 'dishonesty'.
This represented the second time that Lickety Split had changed the rationale for her dismissal, switching from 'dishonesty' to 'gross insubordination/insolence and gross misconduct' in violating the company's confidentiality policies.
And Justice Charles found that Ms Woodside could not be expected to keep such matters from her husband, as argued by Lickety Split, and nor could she be held legally responsible for his behaviour.
Describing the case as "bizarre", Justice Charles wrote: "It is plain that Mr Burrows would have had a monumental task to justify the summary dismissal of Ms Woodside on the ground of dishonesty.
"There is not an iota of evidence ti support that ground. On the contrary, there is ample evidence to support the fact Ms Woodside was an honest worker."
She based this on an October 7, 2013, document in which Mr Burrows described her as "a very hard-working, honest and reliable person, carrying out her duties responsibly" - just five months before her dismissal.
With Mr Burrows and Lickety Split performing several 'u-turns' on the rationale for the termination, Justice Charles wrote: "Although Mr Burrows maintained that he did not terminate Ms Woodside's employment because of what her husband did, I find as a fact that Ms Woodside was dismissed for the actions of her husband.....
"The real reason for summarily dismissing Ms Woodside is because she brought her husband to Mr Burrows' office and he behaved in an unruly manner. Consequently, the charges of gross insubordination and misconduct cannot be implied to her.
"She cannot be held responsible for the acts of another person. In my opinion, by terminating Ms Woodside's long and unfailing service for about 16 years in such a manner rendered the termination unfair and I so find."
Justice Charles also found that Ms Woodside never disclosed Lickety Split's corporate affairs to her husband, and said: "Mr Burrows was in the wrong to initiate such a personal and delicate conversation with Ms Woodside.
"He had already reported the matter of anonymous, harassing telephone calls to the police and the Fraud Department at BTC. He should have allowed the law to take its course."
She continued: "As I see it, Mr Burrows does not have a leg to stand on. He had no reason at all for summarily terminating the employment of Ms Woodside. The breakdown of trust is not a 'mantra' to be misused by employers whenever they are faced with establishing a more conventional conduct reason for dismissal....
"What is clear is that an employer must be decisive. He cannot summarily dismiss an employee on one ground and then go fishing for other grounds to justify the reasons for the dismissal... Therefore, on the substantial merits of the case, Ms Woodside was unfairly dismissed."
The Supreme Court awarded her $26,717, less the $7,000 already paid, for a total of $18,965 plus interest.