A former executive at a publicly-traded Irish fintech firm has lodged a claim for over €100,000 in lost earnings as redress for what he claims was an unfair dismissal with no stated reason by the company last September.
Thomas Hackett says he was promised a “substantial equity package” when he was headhunted to join tech entrepreneur Maurice Healy’s Glantus as a start-up – but that he was denied this shareholding by being sacked before he could take ownership of it.
He has lodged statutory complaints against his former employer under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 and the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997.
His former employer insists the WRC has no jurisdiction to hear a complaint by Mr Hackett under the 1977 act, arguing he worked less than the full year required, which the complainant disputes.
At a hearing yesterday afternoon at the Workplace Relations Commission headquarters in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, Mr Hackett’s barrister said the shareholding was still being pursued in the High Court – but that his client was seeking compensation for a year’s lost earnings.
He said Mr Hackett’s gross annual salary before his dismissal was €100,000, plus expenses of €500 a month.
Pádraig Lyons BL, who appeared for the complainant instructed by Byrne Wallace solicitors, said that 10 days prior to the firm’s initial public offering in May 2021, his client got a phone call from its CEO, Maurice Healy, telling them there had been “a mistake” in the complainant’s share option certificate.
He said his client rejected that proposition and that Mr Healy replied: “You’ve only been with the company eight months and you don’t deserve to have your share options vest upon the IPO.”
Mr Hackett said it would be unfair for him to wait for a later vesting period to elapse, Mr Lyons told the tribunal, but that Mr Healy went on to tell him that if he did not agree to do it the employer would “take the necessary action to make sure that it happens”.
Mr Lyons added that in return for agreeing to the vesting period, his client secured an undertaking from his employer “whereby his contract could not be terminated without six months’ notice”.
Mr Hackett having relocated to his native Boston, Mr Healy then said the complainant should transfer his employment to Glantus’s US arm, counsel said.
Mr Lyons said his client was then presented with an “at-will” employment contract on 23 August 2021 and that when he raised issues with it – including the six-month notice period – there was “radio silence” from the company’s HR officer.
“What then happens is that on the 9 September 2021 [the HR officer] calls Mr Hackett and sacks him. No reason, no warning, nothing,” Mr Lyons said.
He said his client had later received a letter stating that the company had “assessed, monitored and evaluated performance” in respect of Mr Hackett and “didn’t find his skills to be a good match”.
“Mr Hackett knew nothing of this and didn’t have an opportunity to contribute to it at all,” he said.
There was extensive legal argument over the question of whether Mr Hackett’s employment had lasted a full year.
Lorna Lynch SC, instructed by A&L Goodbody for the respondent, submitted that that Mr Hackett’s original employment contract had commenced on October 1, 2020, but was then backdated by the company to Saturday September 26, that year – making September 28, 2020, his first day.
The company’s position was that the complainant had been given notice of termination on September 9, 2021, and was paid his notice in lieu, meaning he had less than a year’s service with the company and so could not avail of the Unfair Dismissals Act.
She added that Mr Hackett received payment in full for six months’ salary at this point.
Mr Lyons contended that his client had been working for the company from September 15, 2020, when his client attended a virtual strategy meeting, after which he had worked “extensively” for the rest of that month.
Mr Lyons argued that as Mr Hackett had a contractual entitlement to a six-month notice period and his employer had chosen to pay in lieu, the correct termination date was the date of the payment on September 29, when the payment was made.
“Even if it’s accepted that Mr Hackett’s employment started on the 26 [of September 2020], the payment was made on the 29 [September 2021] – that is one year later,” he said.
Ms Lynch said the complainant had pursued back pay and expenses when his contract was backdated shortly afterwards, but had not sought pay back to the middle of September 2020.
Both sides cited the 2012 ruling of the UK Supreme Court in Société Générale v Geys as a precedent in the matter – with Ms Lynch arguing that the court had placed more weight on the notification itself rather than the date of payment.
Mr Lyons argued further that Section 13 of the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 voids any contract terms which “purport to exclude or limit the application” of the Act.
“Section 13 means that if an employer seeks to use a pay in lieu of notice term to exclude him from the Act, it is void,” he said.
However, he admitted this was a “difficult” point as there was no direct precedent and he was not aware of any prior occasion where the argument had been made.
“Mr Lyons seems to be saying that a pay in lieu of notice clause is fine, but if deployed close to one year they become void ab initio… Perhaps there’s a reason the argument hasn’t been made before – certainly this isn’t the case for it,” Ms Lynch said.
Adjudicating officer Breiffni O’Neill adjourned the matter to November.