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Rural update: Large wage claim fails

Geoff Bevan

September 2014 . . . A former farm manager recently had his $43,000 victory in the Employment Relations Authority overturned on appeal by the Employment Court.  The decision was something of a lucky escape for the absentee farm owner, because he did not have accurate records of when his manager had and had not worked.    

Although the employer won in the end, we suspect it won’t be a sweet victory - the fight will have been time consuming and very expensive.  This case brings home the importance of:

What happened?

Allan Rockell managed the Rainbow Falls dairy farm on behalf of an overseas owner. Mr Rockell was largely left to his own devices, and he decided when he took leave.  Importantly, the farm owner always provided a relief milker and other support when Rockell wanted to take a break.

After 4 ½ years things went sour over a disagreement about dehorning, and Rockell was dismissed.

As well as challenging his dismissal, Rockell claimed wages of almost $43,000 on the basis that he had:

Records

The main problem for the absentee owner was the company had not kept accurate time records.  This is something we see a lot. 

In that situation the law says that the Authority or Court can simply accept what the employee says about when they worked, and when they did (and didn’t) take holidays.  This leaves the employer in a vulnerable position, and Rainbow Farms found this out the hard way when the Employment Relations Authority accepted Rockell’s claims. 

Fortunately for the employer the Employment Court took a different view.  The employer produced evidence of Rockell being away on a couple of the weekends which he claimed he’d worked.  Overall, his claims simply didn’t stack up, so his case failed.

Employer’s claims also unsuccessful

However this case didn’t go all the employer’s way. 

The farm owner said Rockell had not done his job properly, and claimed up to $450,000 from Rockell for loss of production and the cost of repair work needed on the farm after he left.  That claim was also unsuccessful.  Rockell had never signed an employment agreement and the owner had not monitored his performance, or done anything to address his alleged failings.

Claims by employers against allegedly negligent employees are not unheard of, and at times we have seen courts order employees to pay out substantial amounts to their former employer (e.g. for poor workmanship or negligently crashing a work car). 

However, the tide now seems to be turning – in several cases the Employment Court has signalled to employers that these types of claims will be much harder to win.