Around the world unpleasant email exchanges often result in Employment Tribunal proceedings; however the sheer degree of personal malice evidence in a recent French case has shocked even seasoned commentators. The email in question contained amongst other colourful phrases the following salutation:
“Hello, fat cow… I am waiting for your resignation letter because after my behaviour you must surely realise that I never want to see your ugly mug again, and that there is no way I am paying a penny for firing you!!!
So? Do you now regret it?? It would have been easier if you had finally just slept with someone!! Now you have nothing, no job, no money and as always no man in your life; you should be depressed!”
“Offensive”, “abusive” and “violent” are just a few words that spring to mind upon reading these extracts from an email sent to Ms X, a financial assistant. She received this charming billet doux after a period of sick leave and perhaps predictably decided that she was better off staying at home. She was then dismissed without notice by her employer on the grounds that she had “disappeared” for around a month without providing any legitimate excuse for her continued absence, which it said was jeopardising the proper functioning of the company.
Ms X commenced proceedings claiming she had been dismissed without a real and serious cause (licenciement sans cause réelle et sérieuse). On the day of the hearing she produced the inflammatory email, asserting that its contents had constituted a dismissal (thereby amply justifying her continued absence). Her employer claimed he had not sent the email, highlighting the fact it had been signed ‘Alban’, which was not his name.
The Bordeaux Court of Appeal upheld the employee’s unfair dismissal claim; it considered that the email had indeed been sent by the employer, and that whether it was intended to be a dismissal or not, it gave more than adequate justification for the employee not turning up to work after receiving it. The language used was characteristic of the employer’s aggressive tendencies, which had already formed the basis of various other employee grievances. It ruled that upon sending the email the employer had committed a licenciement sans cause réelle et sérieuse.
The employer appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that the employee had not provided sufficient evidence that her manager was indeed the author of the email. The appeal was founded on articles 1316-1 and 1316-4 of the French Code Civil, which regulate the admissibility of electronic documents, and the necessary authentication of such evidence. The Employment Chamber of the Supreme Court rejected this: it considered that the email constituted a piece of evidence establishing that certain facts had taken place justifying Ms X’s continued absence. It was not a legal document requiring enhanced authenticity checks to confirm its formal validity.
The Supreme Court ruled that her employer should pay compensation of 5,000 euros for its unfair dismissal of Ms X and a further 4,000 euros as recognition of the serious nature of the intimidation she had suffered, which had resulted in her suffering depression. The case clearly illustrates the Court’s acceptance of emails as evidence of an unfair dismissal and that any person denying responsibility for a particular email will need to have stronger evidence to support his position than just a simple denial; it is likely that Ms X would have been awarded a far higher sum had she not only been employed for less than 6 months.