Court awards ex-UTT provost $1.3m for wrongful dismissal

Justice Frank Seepersad
Justice Frank Seepersad

A HIGH COURT judge has warned state boards that the arbitrary sanitisation of staff after a change in government will not be tolerated as he awarded $1.3 million in damages to the former provost of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) Fazal Ali for his wrongful dismissal in 2015.

On Monday, Justice Frank Seepersad condemned the conduct of the government-appointed UTT board in its dismissal of Ali, a former Teaching Service Commission chairman.

In May 2015, Ali was given a new three-year contract, however, shortly after a new board was appointed following the general election in September of that year, his performance was reviewed.

Several months later, Ali was informed that he was placed on administrative leave to facilitate an audit ordered by the board.

Ali, who was the subject of a disciplinary tribunal, was told the reason for his dismissal was because there was sufficient evidence that he misconducted himself by mismanaging the academic business of the university and failed to act in its best interest.

He was represented by Senior Counsel Russell Martineau and Fyard Hosein.

In his decision, Seepersad held that Ali’s contract was wrongfully terminated and had to deal with the professional and emotional toll of it.

It was for this reason, the judge awarded what is possibly the highest award for aggravated damages along with the sum Ali would have earned under his second contract and the loss of opportunity for a renewed contract. The university was also ordered to pay Ali’s costs along with interest.

He has allowed a stay of execution of his decision for 28 days in the event the university chooses to appeal the decision.

Ali joined UTT in 2002 when he was assigned to the office of the campus principal to work on special projects.

In May 2012, Ali was hired for the provost position and was tasked with overseeing the academic community, curriculum content, exams, and student discipline.

The next month, he was asked to temporarily hold the position of president, who handles corporate governance of university facilities, procurement, budgets, and finance. He held that position until the following year.

In May 2015, Ali was given a new three-year contract, however, shortly after a new board was appointed following the general election in September of that year, his performance was reviewed.

Several months later, Ali was informed that he was placed on administrative leave to facilitate an audit ordered by the board. Dr Ali claimed that a newspaper reporter contacted him to comment on the issue before he received official confirmation.

At the end of the audit, Ali was charged with two disciplinary offences over his alleged role in ending the employment of a senior lecturer and a programme administrator.

The disciplinary tribunal led by former Industrial Court vice president Gregory Baker found Ali guilty and he was terminated.

In his lawsuit, Ali contended that the board and tribunal failed to consider that he had a minor role in not renewing the duo’s contracts as that fell within the remit of its vice president of human resources and the previous board.

Ali said he was merely asked whether the absence of the two employees would affect the university’s ongoing academic programmes and that his opinion was confirmed by several other senior staff members.

In his ruling, Seepersad said Ali was at the university for over five years and there was no history of improper conduct or failure to discharge his professional obligations.

“The institution of the charges, his exclusion from meetings and his subsequent dismissal, all occurred after the new board was installed following the 2015 general elections.

Seepersad said while the government of the day was empowered to appoint a board of governors who had a fiduciary duty to protect the interest of corporation-sole, it was expected they do so without “bias.”

“In a democratic society which cherishes constitutional rights, including the right of equality of treatment, it is expected that in the discharge of its obligations, a board, especially one which oversees a state-funded company, would act without bias and focus upon the effecting of sound and measured decisions which applaud performance and ability which advances the mandate of the entity.”

He said these must trump partisan considerations.

“Boards must be mindful that they must prudently manage and allocate public funds. In the discharge of their mandate, there can be no room for personal agendas or political vendettas nor should there be any attempt at staff sanitisation premised upon any ill-conceived notion that is ‘we time now.’

“The sole focus should be good governance and the furtherance of the people’s welfare.”

He labelled the UTT’s board’s actions as “reprehensible,” saying the conduct was calculated to take advantage of every chance to succeed with the plan to remove the claimant.

“The process which was engaged was outrageous, high-handed and egregious,” he said, later adding, “The board operated in a manner which was shameful, offensive, deliberate, discriminatory, high-handed and reprehensible.”

He said the evidence advanced at trial showed a “pellucid mission” to get rid of Ali as he was “marginalised, excluded from meetings and then subjected to wrongful dismissal.”

Seepersad also questioned Ali’s suspension letter, which was dated January 28, 2017, but was only told of it after he received the phone call from the reporter, then was it verified by the then-president of the university.

“The court noted with disapproval that the intended suspension was in fact leaked to the press before the claimant was even notified.”

He said the commentary in the article suggested the audits were financial in nature, erroneously creating the impression that Ali was engaged in fiscal impropriety.

“There was a clear and defined target and an ‘X’ was placed on the claimant’s back.”

The judge said, “The behaviour and improper motives which fashioned the action undertaken by the board has to be condemned.

“The process which was engaged was devoid of merit and has no place in a plural, civilised society which adheres to the tenets of democracy, fairness and equality. It appears that the board adopted a mission to ensure the claimant’s removal and shamelessly engaged in conduct which was designed to take advantage of every chance so as to ensure the successful fruition of its focused and deliberate plan.”

Seepersad said the court will not sanction such conduct and it was for this reason he awarded aggravated damages in a sum “to reflect the blameworthiness of the defendant’s conduct and to signal to all government-appointed boards that the behaviour exhibited in this case will not be tolerated or condoned.”

Also representing Ali was Anjali Maharaj. Attorneys Stephen Singh and Amanda Adimoolah represented the UTT.


"Court awards ex-UTT provost $1.3m for wrongful dismissal"

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