Leading English language school SEDA College has been vindicated by the Labour Court at the Workplace Relations Commission of allegations of discrimination levelled against it by a former employee Melissa Agnarita Cardenas. Ms. Cardenas launched a comprehensive suite of applications to the Workplace Relations Commission following her suspension from work at the College in February of 2020.
A Colombian national, Ms. Cardenas was suspended from work on full pay by her employer on the 12th February 2020 in circumstances where according to the finding of the Court she was “of the belief that she was entitled to avail herself of vast amounts of confidential information, the property of the Respondent (SEDA) that contained personal data of the Respondent’s students.” The Employer acted to prevent the removal of its proprietary data and confiscated the material on the day in question. Ms. Cardenas was placed on administrative leave pending the completion of an investigation.
Melissa Cardenas, assisted by her sister Jennifer Agnarita Cardenas and Mr. Cleison Francisco, both of whom also represented Ms. Cardenas at the Adjudication and Labour Court hearings, filed a series of applications to the Workplace Relations Commission alleging amongst other complaints discrimination on the grounds of her nationality, victimisation and penalisation arising from the events of the 12th February 2020. The sole ground alleged by Ms. Cardenas for discrimination in the first instance was that the individual appointed to replace her was of Venezuelan nationality.
The Complainant filed a separate complaint under the Employment Equality Acts following the closure of the college during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ms. Cardenas was by that time engaged as a full time receptionist and under suspension following the events of the 12th February 2020. During the course of the pandemic the college was operated by voluntary contributions from senior management and delivered limited online facilities for existing students. The teachers involved in online classes were intermittently employed for this purpose. The premises however remained closed. The Complainant alleged that she was not allowed to continue in work at this time because of her nationality.
Counsel for the College at the Adjudication argued that the Applicant did not meet the legal threshold to establish a claim for discrimination in either case. The mere fact of a difference in nationality between two employees does not of itself prove discrimination on this ground.
Following a determination in her favour by the Adjudication Officer, the College elected to appeal the matter to the Labour Court.
Having listened to the delivery of evidence at the Labour Court by Ms. Cardenas and the representatives of the Appellant College, the Labour Court reversed the finding of the Adjudicator for discrimination. The Court accepted the evidence of the College’s representative and her line manager that he himself was of dual Colombian – Venezuelan nationality as was in fact the replacement for Ms. Cardenas. The Court accepted the “cogent and compelling” evidence of Ms. Cardenas’ line manager that the removal of her temporary position in assisting the marketing department, following her move to her full time position elsewhere, and the appointment of her permanent replacement had no connection to her nationality.
Counsel for the College at the appeal submitted the caselaw did not support a finding of discrimination in either case as the Complainant did not meet the threshold of evidence. In agreeing with the submission of the Appellant, the Labour Court quoted from the relevant case law of Southern Health Board v. Mitchell [2001 ELR 201], Cork City Council v. McCarthy EDA 21/2008 and Melbury Developments Ltd. v. Valpeters [2010 ELR 64]. The Court found that Melissa Agnarita Cardenas did not meet the threshold under Section 85A(1) of the Employment Equality Act 1998. Quoting Melbury in particular “..mere speculation or assertions, unsupported by evidence, cannot be elevated to a factual basis upon which an inference of discrimination can be drawn”.
The Labour Court further reversed the finding of discrimination alleged by Ms. Cardenas following the closure of the college during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Labour Court also set aside the concurrent determinations of the Adjudicator in favour of Ms. Cardenas that she was both victimised and penalised by the actions of her former employer on the 12th February 2020. Having heard the evidence of the company’s director and other representatives, the Court found that the actions of SEDA College on the day were “..as a consequence of the Complainants (Ms. Cardenas) own actions on that day..”.
Reacting to the findings of the Labour Court the College issued the following statement. “SEDA College has been in operation for over sixteen years in the Irish education market. It has all times greatly valued its duty to and relationships with its staff. The college operates with over one hundred staff from over twenty different countries. This was the first time in its operation it has had to face allegations of discrimination such as those levelled at it by Melissa Agnarita Cardenas, now found by the Court to be completely without foundation. The College is pleased with the outcome of the Labour Court appeal, vindicating its action. We are greatly obliged to the guidance, advice and assistance of all of our expert legal team throughout this process.”
Solicitors for SEDA College
Counsel for SEDA College
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