€55K award for solicitor dismissed from Limerick law firm

Fintan Walsh

Reporter:

Fintan Walsh

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A SOLICITOR was awarded €55,000 for being constructively dismissed from a Limerick city centre legal firm, after the practice “refused” to deal with issues over unpaid commission for four years and work allocation.

A SOLICITOR was awarded €55,000 for being constructively dismissed from a Limerick city centre legal firm, after the practice “refused” to deal with issues over unpaid commission for four years and work allocation.

Roisin O’Connell brought the uncontested case against respondent Melvyn Hanley Solicitors, where she worked for more than 14 years, on May 27.

The case heard that Ms O’Connell agreed to a 10% pay cut in 2009 as part of cost-cutting measures, and that her 15% commission payment for all new business up to 2007 would be deferred until the practise “could afford to pay it”.

She agreed to take the pay cut on the basis that a newly-qualified solicitor’s contract not be renewed upon expiry. However, the junior solicitor stayed in employment after the contract expired.

The claimant, who began her work for the firm in 1998 as an apprentice solicitor, accepted a management role within the firm in November 2009.

When the firm’s financial position stabilised, the claimant raised her outstanding payments with the respondent.

However, in December 2009, the accountant informed the claimant that if fees continued to reduce, “she’d be out of a job”. The accountant left in June 2010.

A letter sent to a client by the respondent in October 2011 “raised alarm bells” for Ms O’Connell, as only the principal and the junior solicitor were named as contacts for the firm. This, according to the claimant, made her feel she was “being frozen out of the practice”.

It was stated that all new work was being allocated to the junior solicitor and that her clients were being directed to the junior solicitor.

In May 2012, the claimant raised the issue of her unpaid commission and allocated work, noticing that the legal practice had “improved greatly and was doing well”.

After saying that he would revert to her regarding these issues, he replied: “From my perspective I think your view in this matter is unfounded and to be quite frank I think it is unhelpful.”

Ms O’Connell proposed that the firm pay for a Law Society course she was attending, but the principal said that they could not afford it.

In December 2012, she was told: “We’d come to an agreement in the New Year”.

In January 2013, the principal met with Ms O’Connell, denied the details of the commission agreement, and said that he would have to liaise with the accountant “to check his recollection”.

On March 8, 2013 said to to the principal that she was unhappy with the “implicit threats that have been made on several occasions to the effect that if I don’t drop the two concerns, this could jeopardise my future employment with the firm”.

Though the firm agreed to pay her outstanding commission on May 30, she had yet to be paid as of October 1. When she sought a meeting for October 17, the principal asked her for a list of files, and that they be dated with the rate of commission outlined.

The case heard that he would not discuss the issue any further until the list of files were reviewed. She claimed that the principal “got very angry and aggressive” when she told him that meeting needed to go ahead.

Ms O’Connell went on sick leave following this incident, and resigned by letter on November 11, 2013, which detailed the treatment that led to her resignation.

The tribunal found that the firm’s treatment of Ms O’Connell “entitled her to resign”, after what they stated was 14 years of “continued patience and reasonable attitude in circumstances where the respondent has refused to deal with or resolve the issues the claimant repeatedly raised”.