Prison officer to receive $3.4m in decade-long battle over leave

- File photo
- File photo

A HIGH Court judge has ruled in favour of a prison officer who first lost her job when the Public Service Commission (PSC) decided that she resigned in June 2007 because she failed to show up for duty for a year as she was on pregnancy leave.

The officer was eventually allowed to resume duty in April 2022 and on Thursday, the commission was ordered to compensate her for numerous breaches of her rights.

She will receive $3,446,744.54, minus all statutory deductions, as well as interest and costs.

The officer has been challenging the PSC’s decision for more than a decade.

“The claimant’s claim reveals a tale of her resilient and prolonged battle for justice. Her saga spans a 15-year period which involved several matters before both the High Court and the Court of Appeal,” Seepersad said in his ruling.

“This case is unique and highlights the unfortunate degree of dysfunction, which, with distressing regularity, defines the manner in which many service commissions operate.

“The case further highlights how ill-advised decisions effected by service commissions can have a material and adverse impact on the lives of employees who fall under its purview,” he added.

The woman joined the Prison Service in 2000, suffered a back injury and was absent from duty for extended periods between 2004 and 2006.

She became pregnant and tried to resume her duties three months after her daughter was born in June 2006.

She was told by a supervisor she could not resume her duties because she did not properly account for the periods of her absence.

She claimed that she submitted her sick leave and maternity leave certificates, but the PSC still declared that she had effectively resigned from her post, effective June 2007, as she was absent without leave between April 2006 to then.

She challenged the decisions of the PSC and in 2019, it was again ordered to reconsider her case after the Appeal Court held she was treated unfairly when the PSC introduced an issue relating to alleged non-compliance with the Maternity Benefit Act.

“The claimant was forced to challenge the decision to classify her leave and when faced with the prospect of this legal action, the State did a volte-face and reversed its decision,” the judge said.

She was then told she could resume duty in 2022 and sought compensation for the breach of her rights.

In advancing its position, the PSC admitted she was owed her salary as well as other benefits but said the prison service was advised to audit the sums owed to her. That audit, its attorney, Ian Benjamin, SC, told the judge, had started this month and was ongoing.

In his ruling, Seepersad was critical of PSC, saying the audit was “likely a delay tactic, designed to prolong the payment process.”

“It is this court’s view that the defendant must promptly pay the claimant the sum of $2,821,744.54 less all relevant statutorily mandated deductions such as NIS, PAYE and health surcharge deductions.”

Seepersad has, however, granted a 21-day stay of his orders, so payment will not be immediate but he said, “the failure to pay her in a more timely manner is unlawful and unacceptable.”

“Greater effort was required by the commission so as to enable it to address all the administrative matters which required attention to facilitate the payment. The court also finds that the attempt to attribute the delay to the pandemic is devoid of merit.

“The evidence simply suggests that the system adopted by the commission was either grossly inefficient or designed to frustrate the claimant.

“...The evidently lethargic approach adopted by the commission cannot be condoned and the manner in which the claimant was treated violated her constitutional rights.”

Seepersad said the right to protection of the law was afforded to all citizens and in the officer’s case, there was no rational justification for the PSC’s position.

“The commission’s decision to deem that the claimant had resigned, amounted to the infliction of a penalty which was imposed upon her in the absence of any disciplinary hearing and the position initially adopted by the service commission to treat her as having resigned and its subsequent steadfast adherence to the said position cannot be disregarded.”

In awarding her aggravated damages for loss of promotion prospects, Seepersad said the officer was a “victim of circumstance” and had been forced to look on while her colleagues by-passed her and advanced her careers while she remained, at the time, unemployed.

“Although she has been reinstated, she still holds the lowest rank and the denial of her basic right to procedural justice and fairness has led to the irreversible erosion of her seniority.”

As he granted her all the declaratory reliefs she sought, Seepersad said the treatment meted out to her also “eroded her dignity as a woman and mother” since she was forced to scramble to support her family.

“The situation which unfolded was traumatic, emotionally and psychologically distressing as the commission inflicted a draconian penalty in the absence of any disciplinary hearing.

“...Its behaviour was brutish,” the judge said in condemnation.

The officer was represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Jayanti Lutchmedial, Kent Samlal, Natasha Bisram and Jared Jagroo while Keisha Prosper and Anala Mohan also appeared for PSC.


"Prison officer to receive $3.4m in decade-long battle over leave"

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