A senior manager and three administration officers employed at a Disability Services Queensland (DSQ) regional office have sued for over $2 million for the psychiatric fallout of a bitter and prolonged harassment complaint made by another officer.
The dismissal of the original 2008 complaint by Maryborough team leader Julie Johnson against a service manager was appealed – with support from 25 colleagues and the AWU – all the way to the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) and the Industrial Relations Commission.
By the time the process reached the CMC the allegations extended to nine DSQ officers and the issues were categorised as harassment; racial discrimination and vilification; document falsification and destruction; and maladministration.
The referral by the CMC of Ms Johnson’s complaint back to the DSQ put it in the court of Pamela Steele-Wareham, the department’s Regional Director who had been newly appointed to a “collaborative change” role.
The plaintiffs alleged the Regional Director had disposed of the matter negligently by failing to decide the rights and wrongs and – by going soft on Ms Johnson and moving them from their positions – effectively shifting to them the brunt of the blame.
The twelve-day trial was heard in Brisbane’s District Court before Judge John McGill.
In a decision delivered yesterday, he identified “the major stressor confronting the plaintiffs was the hostility generated by Ms Johnson, personally and through the others whose discontent she mobilised.”
He also found DSQ managers had difficulty in managing Johnson effectively: “essentially she was resistant to attempts to modify the difficult aspects of her behaviour”.
The department contended however that its failure to dismiss her or manage her conduct more effectively did not add up to negligence. “Perhaps in an ideal world she would have been identified as an undesirable employee and dismissed, but we do not live in an ideal world.”
In the court’s view, DSQ had indeed adopted a policy of appeasement towards those levelling the complaints “which would inevitably be seen by those against whom they were complaining as taking sides against them”.
However, so held the court, it took this course with valid reasons and – whether or not other courses were open – its decision “clearly cannot be characterised as negligent”.
In any event “it was the campaign of making complaints against the plaintiffs which led to their psychiatric injury. This, of course, is not a matter for which the defendant is responsible.”
Regardless of whether Ms Steele-Wareham had in fact sided with the Johnson camp; or whether she simply felt it important for employment relationships to be seen as someone who was sympathetic to their position by avoiding sympathy “for those whom they regarded as the enemy”, the effect on the plaintiffs “would have been much the same”.
Such a decision does not amount to “a negligent failure to take reasonable care to avoid psychiatric injury” to those against whom the originally dismissed complaints were made.
In recording his sympathies for the plaintiffs, he dismissed their claims.
The claims by all four officers – Samantha Hayes, Pamela Greenhalgh, Tanya Palmer and Edith Harris – were heard together. The four appealed against the ruling. In July 2016, the Queensland Court of Appeal ruled 2-1 against allowing any of their appeals.