Ex-Argento boss's claim against jewellery firm over sacking is thrown out
Row about reservoir right of way at heart of employment tribunal
An industrial tribunal has unanimously dismissed a claim against jewellery firm Argento for unfair dismissal by a former employee.
The case was brought by Moira man Richard Ferguson (39), who was project and business development manager at Argento Contemporary Jewellery Ltd for just over six weeks before his dismissal on September 23 last year.
Argento had insisted that Mr Ferguson was dismissed for gross misconduct due to concerns over his demeanour and attitude.
Argento boss Peter Boyle said he was "extremely pleased with the decision of the tribunal and the confirmation that my position and my team's position has been entirely vindicated".
Mr Ferguson, who had been within the six-month probation period of his one-year fixed-term contract when sacked, represented himself at the tribunal. It heard that Mr Ferguson's role was primarily to research, develop and manage a number of business projects.
This included the establishment of an outdoor leisure facility at Knockbracken reservoir, a campsite at the reservoir, the development of a gin distillery, and the Belfast Kayaking Academy in the east of the city.
Insurers for the reservoir site, which had been purchased by the Argento directors' pension fund, had stipulated its boundary must be secured "as a matter of urgency" amid concerns of teenagers drinking and swimming there. Celebrity make-up artist Paddy McGurgan has a right of way across the site to access his own ome from the Saintfield Road. Mr Ferguson told the tribunal he was sacked by Mr Boyle after refusing to padlock a gate at the reservoir, which he claimed would have prevented Mr McGurgan from accessing his home.
However, the tribunal was told that Mr Boyle had asked Mr Ferguson to give Mr McGurgan a key for the padlock.
Mr Ferguson had further alleged that, after refusing to carry out the order, he was subject to a probationary review meeting "with a view to dismissal" in a bid "to expel" him.
He claimed that on August 30, 2016, and September 7, 2016, he had made "protected disclosures to Mr Boyle in relation to breaches of health and safety of others and further breaches of the law, in terms of illegally blocking a right of way, which Mr Boyle had ordered the claimant to commit".
A 'protected disclosure' enables employees to speak without fear of victimisation if they find malpractice in an organisation.
However, the tribunal rejected this, finding "as a fact that on no occasion did Mr Boyle instruct the claimant to contravene Mr McGurgan's right of way by locking the gate and not giving him a key".
While the tribunal found that Mr Ferguson "may have expressed misgivings to Mr Boyle about his instruction to padlock the gate", it noted that Mr Ferguson had "accepted that this instruction in itself would not have breached the right of way".
It therefore found that Mr Ferguson did not make the disclosures as he had alleged, nor did he make a protected disclosure to Mr Boyle regarding an allegation about the potential theft of intellectual property.
The gate at the reservoir site was not closed or padlocked prior to an agreement which was reached between Argento and Mr McGurgan some months later.
It was also revealed that a witness had come forward during the course of the hearing after seeing Press reports.
They had informed Argento that Mr Ferguson had made a similar claim of being dismissed for making protected disclosures against a former employer to the industrial tribunal, which had subsequently been settled.
They also revealed that the High Court had granted injunctions against Mr Ferguson in respect of matters arising out of the termination of his former employment. Mr Ferguson did not object when Argento asked the most recent tribunal to be aware of these facts.
During the hearing, it also emerged that Mr Ferguson had taped conversations with Mr Boyle and an Argento employee without their knowledge.
The tribunal determined that the claimant did not make any protected disclosures, and therefore his claims relating to this were dismissed.
Furthermore, it was found that Mr Ferguson was "not entitled to notice pay as he was dismissed without notice for gross misconduct and his claim for notice pay is therefore dismissed".