Date: 07 October 2016
Alteration of Medical Certificate Justified Summary Dismissal
Mark Curran, Partner
An ill employee who altered a medical certificate in order to facilitate a return to work was found to have engaged in misconduct, constituting a valid reason for summary dismissal. Further, such summary dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable despite inappropriate behavior of the employer in the events leading up to and following the dismissal.
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In Jeong v Alpha Flight Services Pty Ltd t/as Alpha Flight Services  FWC 4259, the employee was summarily dismissed for failing to comply with Alpha Flight’s Honesty, Integrity and Truthfulness Policy. The employee became ill and was issued a medical certificate declaring her unfit for work. The employee then altered the medical certificate so that she could return to work the day before that prescribed by the issuing doctor.
The employee was subsequently invited to have a meeting with her unit manager and a human resources officer. During that meeting, the employee was questioned about whether she had made changes to the medical certificate. No admissions were made by the employee. A further meeting was held where the employee was informed her doctor had been contacted and it had been concluded she had altered her medical certificate in order to return to work early. As a result, the employee was informed she was being summarily dismissed for serious misconduct.
The employee had worked for Alpha Flights for over three years, with a “largely satisfactory” record. The employee submitted that to be dismissed for misconduct, she would have had to demonstrate the certificate was altered for a“wrong intention”. The employee submitted that while she did alter the certificate, it was not done with any wrong intentions. The employee further submitted she was dismissed not because she altered the certificate, but because of an ongoing workers’ compensation claim for which she had been placed on light duties. The employee said that shortly after making a claim for worker’s compensation she was bullied and harassed by her unit manager and that this contributed to the employee’s failure to justify her conduct at the meetings.
However, Alpha Flights contended it was “well-settled” that an employee needs to be honest with their employer during an investigation and that a failure to do so was grounds for dismissal.
In deciding whether the dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable, the Commissioner held that while the employee’s conduct was not ultimately for her benefit, she had still engaged in misconduct. Further, it was held the meeting notes from the first meeting made it clear the employee had every opportunity to reveal her conduct and yet chose not to. Commissioner Hunt also noted that despite feeling intimidated at the meetings, the employee was given ample opportunity to respond to the reason for dismissal.
However, the Commission was critical of the employer’s conduct at the meetings, noting that the unit manager was distasteful in sitting on the table while the employee was seated. Furthermore, Commissioner Hunt noted that at the second meeting, the employee had asked for a support person from outside of the workplace. This request was denied. Commissioner Hunt opined that where an employee requests a support person, even after the employment is terminated, the employer should not unreasonably refuse.
The Commissioner ultimately held that the employee’s misconduct could not be excused even in circumstances where she believed an early return to work would benefit her employer. Accordingly, the dismissal was not unfair and the employee was validly dismissed for serious misconduct.
Commissioner Hunt noted the importance of employers being able to expect that “when they are provided with medical evidence of an employee’s incapacity, it is a document free from amendments made by the employee”, as the presence of any such amendments may undermine an employer’s confidence in such documents.
The case highlights the importance of employees being honest in all their dealings with their employer, as well as the importance of company policies when deciding unfair dismissal cases.