Former Leeds United boss loses High Court claim over ‘obscene’ email

Leeds United's Elland Road Stadium
Leeds United's Elland Road Stadium

Leeds United’s former technical director has lost his High Court damages claim over his dismissal for sending an email containing “obscene” images of naked women in the shower.

Gwyn Williams, 66, who was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct in July 2013, was seeking up to £250,000 in compensation for breach of contract.

Mr Williams claimed the email he sent to ex-Chelsea colleague Dennis Wise, Gus Poyet - now head coach of Sunderland - and Carol Lamb, a receptionist at the club, was part of a “dirty Leeds” joke, referring to the club’s reputation for heavy tackling in the 1970s.

But dismissing his case today, Mr Justice Lewis of the Queen’s Bench Division said sending the “obscene and pornographic e-mails” was “a sufficiently serious breach of the duty of implied trust and confidence as to amount to a repudiation of the contract”.

He said: “The Club was entitled to rely upon that conduct as justifying the summary dismissal of the Claimant on 30 July 2013. The claim is therefore dismissed.”

Despite ruling against Mr Williams, the judge found that the club had started looking for evidence of gross misconduct so it could sack him without notice a month before his contract was terminated.

He ruled that the club had already decided not to pay him his salary during his notice period before they were made aware of the obscene emails.

The judge said he did not believe Mr Williams’s explanation for sending the photographs to Miss Lamb, who he claimed would appreciate them and “have a giggle about them”.

He said: “The photographs do more than depict a group of muddy women showering. They involve displays of female genitalia and breasts and scenes of simulated sexual activity between women.

“It is also difficult to understand why, if forwarding the e-mail and attachments was intended to do no more than share a verbal joke about Leeds, he should chose to send the e-mail to only one employee, a junior female employee.”

The judge said the images sent by Mr Williams were “a breach of the term of trust and confidence implied in the contract of employment.”

He said he “occupied a very senior management post” at Leeds United and that the images were “viewed objectively and, indeed, by the Claimant’s own admission, pornographic and obscene”.

Mr Justice Lewis added: “The Club’s reputation is important in terms of securing and retaining sponsors and supporters. The dissemination of the images was readily identified with the Club.

“They were sent via an e-mail address which had the phrase ‘leedsunited’ in the address. The accompanying text in the e-mail itself referred to dirty Leeds.

“The media were likely to be interested in stories involving the distribution of such material within the world of professional football. “If the fact that a senior manager had sent such images to a junior female member of staff became known, particularly if it led to a claim for harassment, the media might well have been interested in publicising those events.

“More generally, the sending of pornographic images by a senior manager at the Club to relatively well known persons active in professional football might itself have led to media interest and possibly publication of potentially negative press.

“That, in turn, might well adversely affect the reputation of the Club and, in turn, might well affect its ability to find or retain sponsors or supporters.”

In his ruling, Mr Justice Lewis said the club made Mr Williams redundant on July 23, 2013, but the two parties disagreed on the notice period that should be served.

The club initially claimed he should only be given a notice period of three months, but Mr Williams said he was entitled to 12 months because of an oral contract agreed with former owner Ken Bates.

The judge said the club later accepted that he was entitled to 12 months notice “unless the contract was terminated earlier by reason of gross misconduct”.

He added in his ruling: “The Club had already decided by at least 18 June 2013 that they would start investigations in relation to a number of senior managers at the Club to see if evidence could be discovered to justify dismissing them on grounds of gross misconduct.

“Certainly by no later than 20 July 2013, and in my judgement, probably as early as mid to late June 2013, the Club were actively seeking to find evidence which they could use to justify a dismissal of the Claimant on the grounds of misconduct.

“The claimant...invites me to infer that managers at the club, including [former managing director David] Haigh, knew of the fact that the claimant had forwarded the e-mail to Mr Wise before the decision had been taken to give notice of the termination of the Claimant’s contract.

“In my judgment, the evidence does not support such a finding and, on the evidence before me, I find as a fact that neither Mr Haigh nor any other person involved in the decision to give notice of termination of the Claimant’s contract on 23 July 2013 knew at that time of the 28 March 2008 e-mail from the Claimant to Mr Wise before notice of termination was given on 23 July 2013.”

The judge added in his ruling that “a decision was taken on or before the 22 July 2013 not to make any payments of salary to the Claimant during his notice period”.

He said: “Further, the managing Director, Mr Haigh, and, the acting chief executive officer, Mr Hunt, both knew on 22 July 2013 that such a decision had been taken and that that decision involved a breach by the Club of the Claimant’s contract.”

The judge said there was no evidence the club already knew about the obscene email when it gave Mr Williams notice of termination on July 23.

He said: “The more likely sequences of events, in my judgment, is that the Club had decided to give notice of termination to the Claimant on grounds of redundancy with three months notice; they had decided that they would not pay him any salary in any event; and they were actively looking for reasons to dismiss him on grounds of gross misconduct, and shortly after giving notice of termination, the managers saw the e-mail and wrote the letter dated 24 July 2013 making disciplinary allegations against the Claimant.”

Evidence submitted by Mr Williams’s legal team included an email sent by forensic investigators to then-managing director David Haigh.

It said the investigators had “analysed some 6,000 images attached to the Claimant’s e-mails and conducted targeted keyword searches for potentially offensive language.”

During the hearing, Mr Williams’s counsel, Daniel Barnett, told Mr Justice Lewis at London’s High Court that an attachment to the March 2008 email contained some images of a “Benny Hill” or “saucy postcard” nature while others went a little further, showing genitalia and women hugging and caressing each other.

“But they fall considerably short of hard-core pornography, or images that are likely to shock and disturb. They are innocuous in nature, “ he said.

Mr Williams, who joined Leeds in August 2006 at an annual salary of £200,000 plus benefits, argued that forwarding the email to three friends was not sufficiently serious to amount to a repudiatory breach of contract - while the club says it was.

He says that five years and eight months elapsed before it was discovered by the club, while allegedly conducting a forensic examination to find a reason to justify not paying him his notice.

Mr Barnett said: “The sole remaining issue is whether forwarding an email containing vulgar images goes sufficiently to the root of the employment contract to justify dismissal without notice.”