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Court awards N20m against bank for unlawful dismissal of employee

By Joseph Onyekwere
01 February 2022   |   3:19 am
The National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN), Port Harcourt division has awarded the sum of N20 million against First Bank of Nigeria as general damages for wrongful dismissal and acts of unfair labour....

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The National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN), Port Harcourt division has awarded the sum of N20 million against First Bank of Nigeria as general damages for wrongful dismissal and acts of unfair labour practice against its former employee, Lovell Osahon Ehigie.

The trial judge, Nelson Ogbuanya also awarded a cost of N200, 000 against the bank in favour of the claimant and ordered the defendant to compute and pay to the claimant his withheld terminal benefits and one month ‘salary in lieu of notice’, in line with the terms of the employment contract.

He further ordered that the sum of money awarded should be payable to the claimant within two months of the judgment, failing which it attracts 10 per cent interest rate yearly until fully liquidated in a September 30, 2021 judgment, which the Certified True Copy was obtained by The Guardian last week.

The decision followed a suit filed by the claimant marked NICN/PHC/137/2017 against the defendant, praying the court to declare that the termination and dismissal of his appointment was unlawful and illegal.

The claimant also requested the court to hold that he suffered damages as a result of the acts of the defendant.
“A declaration that the claimant is entitled to and be paid his salaries, entitlement and emolument from the period he was unlawfully and illegally dismissed from his employment until judgment is given, the sum of N60 million being damages for unlawful and illegal termination of appointment and in alternative the sum of N100 million as severance fee,” he prayed.

The claimant said he was employed by the defendant via a letter of employment dated June 16, 1998 and served for about 29 years as at July 2017, after rising through the ranks to the position of Assistant Manager, and had been deployed at various branches of the defendant bank, where he served creditably without blemish.

He argued that he was queried for issuing dude cheque and he responded to explain that he didn’t do so, consequent upon which the defendant suspended him pending the investigation of the said allegation.

Claimant contended that, without being invited to any disciplinary proceedings and without compliance with the provisions of Article 11(c) the Employee Handbook, he received another letter of Termination of Appointment dated September 15, 2017, terminating his employment on the purported ground that his services were no longer required.

But the defendant argued that the claimant’s employment was terminated because his services were no longer required and not as a result of issuance of dud cheque of which the defendant had drawn the claimant’s attention through the query and which he responded to, and that ended the issue.

The defendant argued that no such issue was raised in the termination letter, which was served on the claimant, adding that the claimant was paid one month in lieu of salary, and that it did not set up disciplinary procedure against him as the reason for his termination was that his services were no longer required, and that such reason for termination does not warrant setting up of disciplinary committee to try the employee.

It contended that the termination of appointment was lawful as it was done in accordance with the terms of his employment with the defendant.

Arguing that the claimant suffered no hardship or damages, the defendant prayed the court to dismiss the suit with costs.

In his considered judgment, Justice Ogbuanaya held that the legal status of the claimant’s exit from the employment was that of dismissal and not termination. “The issue (1) is therefore, resolved in favour of the claimant, to the effect that from the evidence on record, the defendant did not just terminate the claimant’s employment but actually dismissed him, in a manner akin to summary dismissal under Art.11.5 (k) of the Employee Handbook,” he held.

Continuing, the judge declared: “The often adopted veiled reason of ‘services no longer required’ or muted reason is not applicable to dismissal (whether express, implied or constructive) but limited to only proper termination done subject to and in due compliance with extant service contract in respect of service of appropriate notice period or payment of salary in lieu of notice and requisite terminal benefits. I so hold.

“In light of the foregoing legal prescriptions on best practice of employment and labour relations, I have taken another look at the incidents and circumstances that culminated in the exit of the claimant from his employment with the defendant. From the records, the Claimant had an unblemished service for 29 years, received anniversary commendation letter, but was later accused of issuing dud cheque to an unnamed third party, an allegation contained in a query, of which he replied and denied any wrong doing, as he had paid the third party through another payment mode, and it would amount to double payment to allow the earlier cheque to be paid out.

“He was nevertheless suspended to pave way for investigation, but few days into his suspension (about 10 days) he was served with termination letter that his services were no longer required. But then, he was neither paid one-month salary in lieu of notice nor his entitled terminal benefits for his years of service with the defendant.

“I have taken another deeper look at the said defendant’s contract of employment with the Claimant and could not see nor was shown any provision where an employee’s employment can be terminated on the basis of ‘services no longer required’. Learned defendant’s counsel did not also confirm any provision or basis of invoking such ground for terminating the employment in such circumstance that has been adjudged to amount to summary dismissal.

“No reason was also advanced to justify the said summary dismissal as evidence of the outcome of the suspension pending investigation was not made available even at the trial. I take the firm stand that absence of valid and justifiable reason makes a dismissal wrongful and is liable to be so declared and set aside. I so hold.”