Ruffley v St Anne’s School: Unfair disciplinary process, causing psychiatric injury, was not bullying


Here, Ruffley v The Board of Management of Saint Anne’s School, the Supreme Court held that:

  1. bullying is not a tort, Charleton J (concurring)[1];
  2. bullying [as a cause of action against an employer] is in a sense a subspecies only of an employer’s duty of care, O’Donnell J [49];
  3. so long as the cause of action remains a subhead of the employer’s duty of care, it is difficult to see that intent on the part of the bully is an essential feature of the claim: the employer owes a duty of care to the employee to protect them from conduct or matters causing distress amounting to a recognisable psychiatric injury, O’Donnell J [71]; and,
  4. conduct which occurs in private can be a component of a claim for bullying. It is possible to treat someone inappropriately and undermine their dignity, without that conduct being witnessed, O’Donnell J [71].

However the facts in this case, as found by the High Court, did not constitute bullying.



Ruffley was a special needs assistant in St Anne’s primary school. Following from workplace disciplinary proceedings, Ruffley instituted High Court proceedings seeking damages in tort from the school’s Board. In the High Court (here), O’Neill J found that the Board’s disciplinary process was inappropriate and within the meaning of bullying in the workplace. The Board appealed that decision to the Supreme Court (pre Court of Appeal).

This case was one of those transferred from the Supreme Court backlog after the creation of the Court of Appeal.

Overturning the High Court decision, the Court of Appeal (here) held that, although the Board’s treatment of Ruffley was contrary to fair procedure and had caused psychiatric injury, it did not fall into the definition of bullying.

After that, the Supreme Court (determination) granted Ruffley leave to appeal further on two questions:

Whether an unfairly carried out disciplinary process resulting in psychiatric injury is, in itself, capable of being actionable in damages on the basis that it amounts to workplace bullying without evidence of malicious intent on the part of the employer.

Whether behaviour not witnessed by other persons in the workplace is capable of undermining the dignity of an employee.


Supreme Court

Dismissing Ruffley’s appeal, O’Donnell J wrote the main judgment for a unanimous seven judge panel. Charleton J wrote a concurring judgment which the other judges also concurred with. O’Donnell believed that he could not answer the questions certified without also considering whether there is a tort of bullying in Irish law. Charleton stated concisely that “bullying is not a tort”[1]. O’Donnell describes bullying as a subspecies of an employers duty of care [49].

O’Donnell J accepted the test for bullying used by Finlay Geoghegan J in the Court of Appeal, there must be:

  1. repeated behaviour;
  2. inappropriate behaviour; and,
  3. behaviour reasonably capable of undermining dignity at work.


O’Donnell J stated:

what is required to be repeated is inappropriate conduct undermining the individual’s dignity at work and not merely that the plaintiff be able to point to more than one incident of which he or she complains. Ultimately, while analysis may be facilitated by looking at the separate elements, it must be remembered that it is a single definition and a single test: was the defendant guilty of repeated inappropriate behaviour against the plaintiff which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work? [60].

… conduct must be repeated, not merely consist of a number of incidents; it must be inappropriate, not merely wrong; and it is not enough that it be inappropriate and even offensive: it must be capable of being reasonably regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work [62].

Further on, O’Donnell J outlined the test for inappropriate behaviour:

Inappropriate behaviour does not necessarily need to be unlawful, erroneous or a procedure liable to be quashed or otherwise wrong in law: it is instead behaviour which is inappropriate at a human level. The test looks to the question of propriety in human relations, rather than legality. Again, the more familiar examples of bullying illustrate this. Purposely undermining an individual, targeting them for special negative treatment, the manipulation of their reputation, social exclusion or isolation, intimidation, aggressive or obscene behaviour, jokes which are obviously offensive to one person, intrusion by pestering, spying and stalking—these examples all share the feature that they are unacceptable at the level of human interaction. That in turn is consistent with the concept of human dignity being protected [64].

The Court resolved this case on a finding that although the disciplinary procedure that the Board conducted was unfair, it was not inappropriate behaviour as applied to the test above.

Therefore, the answers to the two questions certified fro appeal are:

  1. malicious intent is not a necessary element to bullying, but an unfair disciplinary process is unlikely to constitute inappropriate behaviour for the purposes of proving bullying; and,
  2. behaviour not witnessed by a third party is capable undermining the dignity of an employee.



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