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Garage counts the £46,000 cost of unfair sacking

EMPLOYMENT TRIBUNAL FINDS IN FAVOUR OF MECHANIC ‘WHISTLE-BLOWER’

Volksline, in Broad Oak Road, Canterbury
Volksline, in Broad Oak Road, Canterbury

A whistle-blowing mechanic from Herne Bay was unfairly sacked after claiming the garage he worked for was overcharging customers for unnecessary work, a tribunal has ruled. Jason Phur, 39, was awarded £46,000 this week after winning his case against Volksline, in Broad Oak Road, Canterbury. Mr Phur told a three-man panel he had been dismissed just days after claiming the garage was hitting customers with hefty bills for work that was not needed or even carried out. But bosses claimed he had been sacked for his sub-standard work despite awarding him a pay rise for his good performance just two months before.

A three-man employment tribunal agreed with Mr Phur’s case, describing Volksline director Nick Sutton’s reasons for starting disciplinary proceedings as “implausible and inconsistent”. The hearing was told how Mr Phur complained to Mr Sutton that he had been asked to do unnecessary work on two customers’ vehicles. It prompted Mr Sutton to call a staff meeting on October 15 last year to discuss bad atmosphere in the workplace — a meeting which descended into an argument. Volksline started disciplinary proceedings against Mr Phur on November 4 and then sent him a letter of dismissal four days later. It accused Mr Phur of having a “negative attitude at work” and told him his contract would be terminated. At the hearing in Ashford, Mr Sutton claimed that the mechanic had thrown a chair at him during the meeting. The panel said he had never said this before and found that Mr Phur had been dismissed unfairly. In its judgment, the panel said:

“The finding is reinforced by the inconsistent and implausible explanations given by the respondent (Volksline) for disclplinary action. First, it was said that the reason was the claimant’s (Mr Phur) substandard work. But that was inconsistent with the claimant having received a pay rise beeause he was working well in August 2013 and there was no mention or record of substandard work at any time before was mentioned in the respondent’s letter of 16 October 2013. The most recent explanation given by Mr Sutton was during his evidence to the tribunal, that the reason for the disciplinary action was the claimant’s aggressive behaviour on two occasions, including the alleged chair-throwing incident on October 15,2013. But there was no mention of aggressive behaviour in the invitation letter of October 16, 2013, and no such allegations were put to the Claimant during the disciplinary meeting on November 4, 2013.”

The panel found that Mr Phur’s evidence had been consistent. It said:

“He made reference to the unnecessary replacement of a clutch on the instructions of Mr Sutton purely to make money. Such allegations were capable of amounting to protected disclosures under section 43B(1) (a) of the Act, that is a disclosure of information which in the reasonable belief of the claimant is made in the public interest and tends to show that a criminal offence had been committed by way of defrauding customers. A disclosure alleging a criminal offence is in the public interest.”

The tribunal found that the fact Mr Phur had made his concerns known to bosses was the reason he had been dismissed. Volksline has never been prosecuted for defrauding any customers and the tribunal’s remit does not extend to investigating such allegations.

‘We’ve been shafted —it is unfair’

Nick and David Sutton of Volksllne in Canterbury's Broad Oak Road
Nick and David Sutton of Volksllne in Canterbury’s Broad Oak Road

The bosses of Volkaline said this week:

“We’re an honest firm. We’ve been shafted:”

Father and son David and Nick Sutton insist they do not overcharge their customers and complain that employment tribunals are unfairly weighted in favour of employees. The pair reacted with horror and incredulity when told of the level of the payout to Mr Phur – £46,000. Nick Sutton, 51, said:

“Fortunately we’re insured against this, but if we weren’t it would shut us down. We feel like the tribunal was against the employer. The whole thing was flawed. Going on the witness stand for more than an hour was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. It has made me sick.”

Volksline was founded by David, 70, in 1979 and has a staff of nine. Nick runs it on a day-to-day basis. David said:

“We have been shafted. It is extremely unfair. I’ve lost two stone because of this. I’ve not been able to sleep, nor have I been able to eat. Moreover, therem is no way we overcharge customers. We have a regular client base — the core business of which is Volkswagen owners – including doctors and solicitors. We have never fitted parts that didn’t need fitting. We axe an honest finn which has been operating in Canterbury for 35 year’s.”

Both men said Mr Phur was a tireless worker and one of their best mechanics. They say he carried out work he was not required to do, such as cleaning the building’s toilets. They claim his attitude changed when he asked for a £200 a week pay rise but received a £5o increase. Nick says it was shortly after this that the meeting took place where he alleges Mr Phur threw a chair at him. Asked why he had not reported the incident immediately, he said:

“I was told not to by the human resources firm we hired. I now feel like we were hung out to dry.”

David said:

“We always treat our employees well. This whole thing feels like a punch in the throat.”

‘This has had a huge impact on me”

Jason Phur, who has just won an employment tribunal
Jason Phur, who has just won an employment tribunal

“Mechanic Jason Phur has accused his former bosses of destroying him after he raised concerns that they were doing unnecessary work on customers’ vehicles. The 39-year-old said:  “They just didn’t like the fact that I spoke up against the regime. But what they did to me has had a huge emotional and psychological impact upon me – and all I thought was that I was doing something right, trying to improve the workplace. For that they destroyed me.”

The employment tribunal heard that bosses at Volksline knew that Mr Phur suffered from depression when they hired him and later engaged him in legal proceedings. Mr Phur raised his concerns in a meeting that began unremarkably before turning into a heated argument which eventually led to Volksline sacking him. They later asserted he had hurled a chair at boss Nick Sutton —a claim dismissed by the tribunal. Although he has won his case against the company, Mr Phur has not worked since. He said:

“This has exacerbated my depression. But they did all this knowing I had depression and that I was fragile psychologically. The stuff about me throwing a chair is absolute rubbish, but that’s just the way they are.”

Mr Phur has been in east Kent all his life. He lives with his wife Claire, 38, and their children aged four, seven and 10 in Nurserylands, off Eddlngton Lane. He attended King Ethelbert School in Birchington before training to become a mechanic at Canterbury College. He has worked at half a dozen motor shops around east Kent, earning the praise and respect of colleagues. The tribunal heard that once he began to criticise the firm, he was suddenly accused of performing substandard work. This was then used as the pretext to sack him.

“Again, that’s garbage,” Mr Phur said. “I’d received a pay rise for good work a few months earlier. They were very worried that this might get into the patrol so at one point they tried to arrange an out-of- court settlement, but obviously it came to this instead. I haven’t yet recovered from the ordeal of going through it all, but at least I have been totally vindicated in pursuing this.”

Mr Phur was represented at the tribunal by Herne Bay-based Employment Law 4U. After the case, solicitor Mike Arnold said:

“This judgement demonstrates that workers should come forward to complain if they believe that there are wrong-doings that they believe are being committed by their employer and are in the public interest. Whether the workers’ beliefs are true or not is not the issue. As long as the allegations are made, they must be investigated correctly. The worker must not suffer any detriment because they have blown the whistle and certainly must not be dismissed because of it. The law protects those who whistle-blow.”


‘FLABBERGASTED’

A disgruntled customer of Volksline submitted evidence to the hearing that he believed he had been overcharged for work. Bank worker John Ferster, from Whltstable, said he had taken his car to Volksline for a service in 2011. But while waiting in reception he was told the car needed new brake pads and that it had an oil leak. He said:

“I then received a phone call about a week later going over what he previously said to me on my first visit but on this occasion he gave me a price over the telephone of over £500. “I was absolutely flabbergasted to think I had potentially been sold an unroadworthy car. I refrained from taking his offer and part of me was sure this couldn’t be accurate as the car was running smoothly on a day- to-day basis.”

Mr Foister said he then took the car to another mechanic who said that the work did not need doing and that there was nothing wrong with it.


THE ALLEGATIONS

In his witness statement to the tribunal, Jason Phur made allegations about work he felt the firm had carried out which hadn’t needed doing. These were only allegations and the tribunal did not examine whether they were true. They included:
• VW Polo estate came in for rough running. Full service and MoT. I was ordered by Nick Sutton to remove complete cylinder head but the fault was engine cntrol unit which was sent for repair. The bill was over £2,500.
• Jaguar S Type V6 engine misfire. Volksline decided to put a new set of injectors, but the cause of the misfire was a spark plug. The bill to the customer was £900.
• Instructed by Nick Sutton that every time we replaced a clutch, the dual mass flywheel was to be replaced if needed or not.
• Brake fluid changes were charged for even though the equipment for doing so had been broken for months.
• Every car is charged for sump plugs and ring (seal) even though they may not have been needed.
• During timing belt Changes, water pumps were fitted, required or not.
• Mercedes M Class. Customer had three or four sets of front and rear brake discs and brake pads fitted with the cheapest bad-quality parts available but were charged out at original equipment prices.
• VW Passat came in as a non-runner. After investigation I found out the diesel pump timing belt had jumped. I fitted the belt correctly and the vehicle started and ran as it should. I was then told by Nick Sutton to remove a perfectly good cylinder head to make an unnecessary expensive job out of it, at a cost of about £2,500 to the customer.
• Vauxhall Vectra. The car had lost its drive. I removed the gearbox and the internal slave cylinder had a bad leak of clutch fluid. I was told to fit a new clutch as I had the gearbox out but the clutch was new and did not need replacing.
• Brake discs. They had standing instructions to technicians like myself to never just fit brake pads but to always fit brake discs as well regardless of whether they were needed.
• When vehicles are dropped off by the RAC or the AA the customers had no option but to swallow the price and to pay for work that was not needed and often made up. The alternative was that Volksline would buy the car for next to nothing, cheaply fix what was wrong and sell the vehicle on.

Herne Bay Gazette, December 4th 2014

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