Liability for “negative” references – Bullimore v Pothecary Witham Weld (Solicitors)

Both a prospective and past employer have been found liable to a solicitor whose, job offer was retracted following the provision of a “negative” reference.

Miss Bullimore worked for Witham Weld Solicitors (“WW”) which has since merged to become Pothecary Witham Weld Solicitors (“PWW”) between 1999 and 2004. Following the termination of her employment, Miss Bullimore brought a claim against WW for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination, which was settled.

In 2008, another law firm, Sebastians offered Miss Bullimore a job “subject to the receipt of satisfactory references”. She approached Mr Hawthorne, a partner at PWW who had managed her during her time at WW for a reference. Mr Hawthorne obliged, but gave a reference which was “significantly influenced” by the fact that Miss Bullimore had previously brought sex discrimination proceedings against WW.

Mr Hawthorne remarked in the reference that Miss Bullimore could “on occasion be inflexible as to her opinions”, referred “gratuitously” to the claim she had brought against WW, and made other comments which gave the reference a tone that was “negative”.

Following the receipt of this reference, Sebastians revised their job offer to Miss Bullimore to include a six month probationary period. Miss Bullimore was not prepared to accept a position on these terms, and Sebastians were unwilling to further alter them. This led to the end of the job offer.

It was found that Sebastians “were not simply responding to a negative reference” but were influenced in their decision to withdraw their offer and replace it with one which was less favourable on Miss Bullimore’s part by the knowledge that Miss Bullimore had brought sex discrimination proceedings against WW. This action was “unlawful discrimination by way of victimisation” in contravention of section 6(1) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

This was, quite simply, “unlawful conduct by a firm of solicitors who should have known better.” Sebastians saw fit to pay Miss Bullimore £42,500 in settlement of her claim before the hearing to decide the extent of their liability to her.

On the appeal of Miss Bullimore, it was also decided that it would be “most unsatisfactory if a claimant who lost the opportunity of employment as the result of such a reference were unable to recover substantial damages from his former employer.

The case is therefore being remitted to the original employment tribunal to consider Miss Bullimore’s claim for loss of earnings against PWW, which was initially dismissed.


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One response to “Liability for “negative” references – Bullimore v Pothecary Witham Weld (Solicitors)

  1. Pingback: Damages for negligent misstatement – communicating with former employers – Mckie v Swindon College | employment law update

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