No right to claim extra pay if 'forced' to resign: Court

Judges reject appeal, say worker entitled only to what is in contract

Former Robinsons employee Lawrence Wee had claimed that had he not been forced to quit, he could have continued working at the department store. -- ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
Former Robinsons employee Lawrence Wee had claimed that had he not been forced to quit, he could have continued working at the department store. -- ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Workers who say they are forced to quit after their employer makes life unbearable should not expect to get any extra compensation other than that guaranteed in their contracts.

This is the norm in typical cases of "constructive dismissal". And workers will have to show proof of actual loss stemming from the dismissal, such as mental or emotional duress, if they hope to get extra damages.

The top court in Singapore made this clear in dismissing former Robinsons employee Lawrence Wee's appeal against the High Court, which had rejected his claim for damages after he argued that he had been pushed out by his employer.

The 40-year-old had worked as assistant general manager of corporate sales and cards at retailer Robinson & Co (Singapore) for about six years.

Although he resigned in August 2012, he claimed it was a case of "constructive dismissal".

This is when an employer, instead of just sacking someone, makes working conditions difficult in order to force the worker to resign. Mr Wee alleged the company persecuted him because of his homosexuality.

He was paid four months' salary in lieu of notice plus cash for unconsumed leave. This was more than the two months' salary he was entitled to if he had been sacked under his contract.

But he sued, arguing that had he not been forced to resign, he could have continued to work there. He wanted compensation for his loss of future earnings, among other things.

Robinson successfully applied last year to strike out his claim before an assistant registrar, and then again in the High Court, which pointed out the flaw in Mr Wee's argument.

The court said his claim was "doomed to fail". Even if he had been "constructively dismissed", he would have been entitled to only two months of salary, based on his contract, and he had already received more. His allegation that he was treated poorly because he was gay was irrelevant.

Mr Wee, represented by lawyers Paul Tan and Choo Zheng Xi, appealed against the ruling.

This was dismissed in May, and the Appeals Court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and appeals judges Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang, released the grounds for its decision last week.

The court said Mr Wee did not show he had suffered any "continuing financial losses" such as finding it tougher to get a job because of the dismissal or "distinct injuries" arising from illness or mental or emotional distress.

"In truth, (Wee)'s claim was simply one for 'constructive dismissal' for which compensation for the loss suffered would, in this case, be confined to two months' salary in lieu of notice as stipulated in (his) employment contract," said CJ Menon.

He had "no legally sustainable basis to claim anything more than what he had already received", said the court.

Mr Wee was ordered to pay $20,000 in legal costs to Robinson.

Responding to The Straits Times, the company denied Mr Wee's allegations, and said it is against any form of discrimination.

"We are committed to the creation of an equal opportunity workplace and have, in 2009, signed the Employers' Pledge of Fair Employment Practices with tripartite partners, the Singapore Business Federation/Singapore National Employers Federation, the National Trades Union Congress and the Ministry of Manpower."

The company's lawyer, Mr Eusuff Ali, said the court's decision affirmed the current law governing the contractual obligations between an employer and an employee.

Lawyers said the judgment is significant for the court's ruling on the consequences of "constructive dismissal" - a concept that is new and developing here and abroad.

This case is understood to be the first Appeals Court decision on the measure of damages that could be claimed for "constructive dismissal".

Mr Choo, who represented Mr Wee, pointed out that the ruling did leave open the possibility of damages being claimed if "constructive dismissal" results in the person's future employment prospects being impaired.

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