In Farnan v Sunderland Association Football Club the High Court considered whether it had been lawful for Sunderland Association Football Club (SAFC) to dismiss its Marketing Director, Michael Farnan, without notice, for disclosing confidential information. The relationship between Mr Farnan and SAFC’s CEO, Ms Byrne, does not seem to have been a happy one and in May 2013, Ms Byrne trawled through Mr Farnan’s emails, due to concerns she had about emails he had been sending to his wife’s personal email account. When Ms Byrne read the emails, she found numerous emails to Mrs Byrne about confidential SAFC matters. She also discovered that Mr Farnan had emailed confidential documents to his wife in order to “bank” them, to protect his own interests in the event of a dispute with SAFC. In addition, it transpired that Mr Farnan had used confidential information and bid documents for his own purposes in seeking alternative employment whilst he was employed by SAFC and had wrongly disclosed a sponsorship agreement to a third party. He was dismissed for gross misconduct.
Mr Farnan brought a breach of contract claim against SAFC in the High Court and claimed compensation of around £1 million. He argued that he had sent emails to his wife so she could help him with “administrative support” and had been authorised by the Board to “bank” confidential documents. Whilst the Court accepted that Mr Farnan had relied on his wife for administrative support, it did not accept that he had been authorised to bank confidential documents. Mr Farnan had committed serious and repeated breaches of his contract of employment and there had been sufficient justification for SAFC to dismiss him without notice.
However, the Court was critical of other allegations which had been made against Mr Farnan, including the allegation that a Christmas card he had emailed to people from his SAFC account, featuring women with their breasts exposed wearing Santa Claus hats and the message “Breast wishes for Christmas”, amounted to gross misconduct. Although some people would find the card offensive, it had to be considered in the context of the working environment in which it had been sent. Similar incidents involving other employees had been tolerated, including an email which had been sent by one of the directors to Mr Farnan’s wife in which he had written “Happy birthday all the breast”. Whilst Ms Byrne had spoken to the director about it, when he claimed it had been a typographical error, Ms Byrne accepted this and merely told him to be more careful in future.
Mr Byrne is also claiming unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal. His unfair dismissal claim has not yet been heard.