Hartlepool Sixth Form lecturer WAS unfairly dismissed, tribunal finds

Carole Horseman on the lawn at Hartlepool Sixth Form College
Carole Horseman on the lawn at Hartlepool Sixth Form College

A Hartlepool college lecturer was unfairly dismissed from her job, a tribunal has found.

Sue Houchen, former head of law at Hartlepool Sixth Form College, resigned last year after taking sick leave due to work-related stress and depression.

Hartlepool Sixth Form College.

Hartlepool Sixth Form College.

Mrs Houchen blamed her illness on a campaign by the college to undermine and remove her, citing a lack of support from management and a breakdown in her relationship with her deputy.

She told the Mail: “It’s been the longest, most difficult two years of my life and I’m just so relieved that the court has shown the college for what they are and that I was forced out of a job I love.

“Having dedicated 13 years of my life to the college and its students, I’m just saddened by the fact that senior management within the college unfairly and unjustly pursued a campaign with unfounded allegations that forced me out of the college.”

An employment tribunal found the college ignored its own sick policy and that it behaved unreasonably in launching disciplinary procedures leading to her suspension.

It’s been the longest most difficult two years of my life

Former Hartlepool Sixth Form College tutor Sue Houchen

The tribunal found that Mrs Houchen’s claim she had been unfairly constructively dismissed was well founded.

The panel, headed by a judge, also found the college had unlawfully deducted one week’s holiday pay.

But it dismissed three other claims by Mrs Houchen including that she had been subjected to detriment because of protected disclosures she had made.

It also did not find that she had been discriminated against on the grounds of disability due to her depression.

And the college was not found to have breached a contract by failing to pay Mrs Houchen a bonus.

Claims against the then acting principal Carole Horseman and head of faculty Maureen Bunter personally were dismissed.

The tribunal heard that divisions developed between Mrs Houchen and her deputy Joe Coomer and law tutors Linzi Shipley and Nadine Hall towards the end of 2013.

In June 2014, Mrs Houchen began to work from home on reduced hours and was later signed off work sick due to stress by a doctor.

Mrs Houchen had complained in an email to Mrs Horseman of a lack of support from the management, her relationship with her deputy and her workload.

The next day, college head of faculty Maureen Bunter interviewed staff about the problems in the law department. Some were “highly critical” of Mrs Houchen and were the beginning of an investigation which led to the bringing of disciplinary proceedings.

After taking advice from David Stevenson, clerk to the governors, Mrs Horseman wrote to Mrs Houchen suspending her on medical grounds.

The tribunal heard Mrs Horseman felt Mrs Houchen should no longer be working in the light of the sick note but wanted her ultimately to return.

Mrs Houchen, who lives in the Stockton area, resigned in the November and launched legal proceedings.

The college denied Mr Coomer had undermined Mrs Houchen and said they offered her support, but she refused to accept it.

But Employment Judge John Hunter said in the judgement that the college took the complaints from staff against Mrs Houchen at face value and did not interview her before formulating disciplinary charges.

It stated: “It seemed to the claimant and to us that the respondent (college) had decided to resolve the difficult situation in which it found itself by dismissing the claimant.”

The judgement added the college ignored their sickness policy by not holding a welfare meeting to keep her informed about what was happening.

It added: “We are satisfied that the respondent’s decision to proceed with a disciplinary hearing and press for a dismissal together with the presentation of further charges that were at least in part manifestly without foundation was the final straw for the claimant.”

A remedies hearing to decide the level of compensation to be awarded to Mrs Houchen will take place on Friday, October 30.

The college declined to comment.