A worker who announced she was leaving her current role and moving departments with an ambiguously worded letter had not resigned, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has ruled.
Patricia Levy was employed by East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust as an assistant administrator from March 2006. Immediately before leaving, she worked in the records department at a Margate hospital.
The assistant administrator experienced difficulties while at the records department, including problems with a co-worker and needing to be spoken to about her absence record by the hospital’s operational manager. She applied for a position in radiology within the same trust and discovered this had been approved, subject to pre-engagement checks, in June 2016.
The following day, Levy handed in a letter to her manager, which stated: “Please accept one month’s notice from the above date”.
Her manager replied the same day, saying he accepted Levy’s notice of resignation and stating her last date. He did not fill in a staff termination form, as these were for staff who were leaving the Foundation Trust, not internal transfers. He also did not make any reference to the assistant administrator quitting her employment more generally, such as discussing her accrued leave balance.
Six days later, Levy learned that radiology had withdrawn the job offer. Levy phoned her HR team the same day about taking back her resignation and was told this was at the discretion of her manager. She then approached her manager, who in turn contacted HR, explaining that he understood the unofficial reason for the offer being withdrawn was Levy’s sickness absence.
The next day, HR advised the manager that he was not obliged to allow Levy to retract her resignation. After discussing the matter with his line manager, he decided not to allow Levy to do so. Her employment ended in July 2016.
Levy filed a constructive unfair dismissal complaint in September 2016. However, after receiving legal advice, she changed her complaint to one claiming she was directly dismissed.
The Ashford Employment Tribunal allowed Levy’s claim, finding that her resignation letter was ambiguous as to whether she was just leaving the records department or resigning from the Foundation Trust’s employment entirely. Despite this, the tribunal also found the Foundation Trust had taken it to mean Levy was quitting the department.
The Foundation Trust appealed, but the EAT dismissed the appeal. Although the EAT acknowledged that giving notice could usually be taken as notice to leave the employer, Levy’s circumstances were not typical, in that she was taking up an offer in another department and she was not specific about who she intended to leave. Furthermore, the Foundation Trust’s reaction to receiving notice suggested that it had interpreted it to mean Levy was leaving the records department, not the Foundation Trust.
Croner associate director Paul Holcroft said that although the facts of the case were very specific, it did “highlight the value of clarifying the intentions of an employee where they are ambiguous”.
“The EAT’s finding that the content of the employee’s letter could be read in different ways is one example of where ambiguity can cause problems for employers,” he added. “Failure to follow this up by asking the employee about her resignation meant that there was no opportunity for the employer to understand what she really wanted to do.”
The Foundation Trust has been contacted for comment. Levy could not be reached for comment.