School assistant bullied by employer gets €255k payout
A SPECIAL needs assistant has been awarded €255,000 by the High Court for bullying and harassment by the school she worked in.
Mr Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill described the "severe" and "unmerited" treatment of Una Ruffley by the board of management of St Anne's National School in the Curragh, Kildare, as persistent and inappropriate behaviour which undermined her dignity at work.
He said principal Pauline Dempsey's account of the complaint against Ms Ruffley, who had worked in the school for 14 years, to a board meeting was "almost certainly untrue, highly biased, coloured, and grossly and unfairly damnified".
He also found it reprehensible that Ms Dempsey had "trumped up" an additional complaint against her.
The judge said the board of the school, which provides education for children with special needs, failed to properly respond to Ms Ruffley's efforts to have the matter dealt with through internal disciplinary procedures and left her with no option but to take legal action.
Ms Ruffley had suffered definite and identifiable psychiatric injury as a result of her treatment, he said, and awarded her €140,276 for loss of past and future earnings and €115,000 in general damages.
The judge said the case arose out of an incident on September 14, 2009, when Ms Ruffley was with a pupil in the school's "sensory room".
At issue was whether it was normal practice to lock the room door or just leave it closed as it was accepted that the sensory programme should be done without interruption.
The judge said he accepted evidence of Ms Ruffley and other special needs assistants (SNAs) that it was general practice at the time to lock the door.
When the pupil Ms Ruffley was dealing with that day fell asleep, the class teacher told her to allow him to sleep for another 20 minutes.
Ms Dempsey tried to gain entry three times before Ms Ruffley opened the door, which later gave rise to disciplinary moves against her.
The judge said he was satisfied from the evidence that it was general practice to lock the door for child protection and health and safety reasons.
Following the incident, Ms Dempsey warned Ms Ruffley of disciplinary action but the principal later wrote to her to say there would not be any such action.
Difficulties arose later about the filling in of a form relating to the review of her work which then led Ms Dempsey to wrongly characterise it as a "falsification" of the form by the SNA, the judge said.
Ms Dempsey then brought the matter of the door locking incident, and of the alleged failure of Ms Ruffley to improve her performance, to a board of management meeting which recommended the SNA receive a formal warning and that her next salary increment be deferred.
The judge said the board had been "grossly misled" by the principal and that Ms Ruffley had been subjected to disciplinary sanction of a severe kind which was unmerited.