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Saha v Imperial College of Science, Technology & Medicine, High Court, 7 August 2013

14 November 2013

The issues

Education, Harassment, Protection from Harassment Act

The facts

The claimant was a student at Imperial College and brought a claim for personal injury and loss arising from harassment from Dr Soldati and employed members of his team. The claimant did well in the early days and in early 2004 had to obtain approval for her MPhil to be transferred to a PhD which required a report to be submitted and a viva. The progress review panel recommended that the claimant re-write her report and set a date for a new viva. The claimant was upset and had a meeting with Dr Soldati in which the need for the claimant to work harder was discussed. The claimant was upset, stating that she worked very hard already. She cried, but not uncontrollably or continually. In July 2004 Dr Soldati left for Geneva but remained as external supervisor. Between May 2004 and February 2005 the claimant alleged various acts of harassment on Dr Soldati’s part and by Dr Von Heyden and Dr Blancheteau. She made a formal complaint in May 2005 followed by a second formal complaint in June 2005 and a third grievance procedure complaint in Sept 2005. In May 2010 she brought proceedings.

The claimant relied, as evidence of harassment, on a series of emails and a number of occasions of alleged physical intimidation. Although it was not part of her pleaded case, the claimant also relied as background on allegations of research misconduct on the part of Dr Soldati. By the time of her formal complaint the allegations of misconduct had become allegations of confusion. A number of the emails were expressed in an intemperate, high handed and at times accusatory tone. Their manner of expression was unfortunate. Dr Soldati was Swiss and English was not his first language and there were occasions when in addition to his habit of liberally using exclamation marks there were unfortunately expressed complaints. In some of the matters that Dr Soldati raised he was wrongly informed but nonetheless the issues were raised in good faith and in the claimant’s perceived best interests. Dr Soldati shared the claimant’s informal complaint with other members of the team and should not have done so; it was confidential and should have remained so. He did so because he understood that she was raising the issues with them and they therefore needed to be addressed and because some of them applied to others. There were a number of grounds on which Dr Soldati’s behaviour throughout June 2004 could be criticised and had he continued to act in the same way and to insist on unreasonable demands and to ignore confidentiality issues a course of conduct capable of constituting harassment might have been made out. However, he accepted criticisms made of his behaviour and did not continue to insist on matters such as working hours or proof of work. Nor did he continue to flout confidentiality. After July 2004 his contact with the claimant was minimal. The claimant’s real complaints related to the period from May to the beginning of July 2004 but her concerns were addressed. The unreasonable demands he had made were not persisted in and there were no further proven incidents and only a few further emails.

The decision

There was no sufficient course of unreasonable conduct capable of constituting harassment and in any event his conduct during that period, though unreasonable and unjustified, did not cross the boundary from unreasonable and unattractive conduct into oppressive and unacceptable behaviour. At all times his prime motivation, both objectively and subjectively, was to get the claimant’s work on track. The allegations of harassment by Dr von Heyden were dismissed as were the allegation in respect of Dr Blanche Teau.

In summary; 1) There was no course of conduct amounting to harassment 2) If there was Dr Soldati neither knew nor ought to have known that that course of conduct amounted to harassment.

Claim dismissed

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