WhatsOnStage founder wins unfair dismissal claim against the company’s new American owners

terri-paddock-thumnbAfter a 15-month legal battle, leading theatre industry figure Terri Paddock has won her unfair dismissal claim against WhatsOnStage.com, the media company she co-founded, and its new American owners, TheaterMania.com, Inc.

The London Central Employment Tribunal ruled that WhatsOnStage Ltd had no reasonable grounds to dismiss Ms Paddock and had not followed a fair procedure in doing so.

Paddock was the founding editor and employee of WhatsOnStage.com in June 1997 and ran the business for more than 16 years. Under the direction of New York-based TheaterMania CEO Gretchen Shugart, Paddock was summarily dismissed in December 2013.

At the time, the company informed Paddock that they considered her guilty of gross misconduct and bringing the company into disrepute on the basis of three alleged incidents:

  1. Acting in a “drunk and disorderly” manner at the private after-party of the WhatsOnStage Awards launch, which Paddock emceed, on Friday 6 December 2013;
  2. Having an “inappropriate” business discussion at an office Christmas lunch held at Brown’s Restaurant on Tuesday 10 December 2013 with Mr Richard Gresham, a long-time former colleague and consultant who had been due to return as sales director in January 2014;
  3. Having “inappropriate contact” with a female colleague at the same Christmas lunch at Brown’s on 10 December 2013.

Paddock was first informed of the above charges at a 37-minute meeting, with Shugart and TheaterMania CFO Joe Yurcik, on Thursday 12 December during which Shugart and Yurcik, according to the Tribunal ruling, attempted to “pressurise the Claimant into accepting a compromise agreement” rather than face disciplinary proceedings on the multiple allegations, “an outcome described by Mr Yurcik as ‘allowing the Claimant to resign gracefully rather than be dismissed’.”

A fair disciplinary procedure was not undertaken and Paddock was never allowed to question her accusers or properly defend herself against the allegations.

Immediately after this meeting, Paddock was escorted from the WhatsOnStage offices. She was dismissed on Monday 16 December 2013, while signed off sick for one week suffering from reactive stress and shock.

Paddock refuted these allegations at an internal appeal heard by New York-based TheaterMania board member Lee Simonson in January 2014. At this, she presented witness statements from seven industry guests who attended the launch party, confirming that she was not acting in a “drunk or disorderly” manneras well as testimony from Richard Gresham, and CCTV footage from Brown’s restaurant.  Simonson determined that Paddock was guilty of gross misconduct and upheld the dismissal.

In preparation for the six-day Tribunal hearing from 19-26 September 2014, both sides called witnesses to give testimony on the various allegations of misconduct. During the course of the hearing, however, WhatsOnStage chose to rely solely on the third allegation as the reason for Paddock’s dismissal. Mr Yurcik characterised this as a “very serious piece of sexual harassment”, which according to Ms Shugart, “spooked” and “haunted” Yurcik to this day.

The judges disagreed. On CCTV viewing of the incident, which lasted “less than one second”, the Tribunal held that “it would have been impossible for anyone in the position of Mr Yurcik to have concluded that what he witnessed was sexual harassment, let alone ‘a very serious piece of sexual harassment’.”

“In all the circumstances,” the judges stated, “we do not agree that the Claimant’s conduct was culpable or blameworthy”. They also said: “no reasonable Board could form the opinion that the Claimant had….brought the Respondent into disrepute or discredit or had prejudiced the interests of the Respondent.”

Paddock commented on the ruling: “It has been a long and difficult 15 months. WhatsOnStage was a company that I was passionately committed to. It broke my heart to leave the company in such a manner. I am relieved to have the opportunity to clear my name and to be vindicated at last.”

Claims for bullying and harassment.
Throughout, Ms Paddock has denied all allegations of inappropriate behaviour. At the hearing, she testified that the alleged incidents, and the false charge of gross misconduct, were used by the Company to get rid of her quickly and cheaply. She said that the dismissal followed a long campaign of bullying and harassment waged against her by Ms Shugart, which, Paddock believed, had been aimed at undermining and forcing her to resign.

The Tribunal stated they “had a great deal of sympathy with many of the complaints made by the Claimant of Ms Shugart’s management of her” and  stated that “events during that year which contributed to the Claimant feeling undermined might… have resulted in her resigning and claiming constructive dismissal”.

On the subject of harassment, the Tribunal said of Ms Shugart and her “uncompromisingly difficult” management style: “We accept that Ms Shugart engaged in unwanted conduct which either had the purpose or the effect of creating an adverse environment for the Claimant.” However, the Tribunal felt that Paddock’s treatment was not related to her gender and therefore Paddock’s claim for sex discrimination was not upheld.

Witnesses who gave testimony at the Tribunal in support of Paddock’s claim included Kimberley Kaye, former editorial Creative Director of TheaterMania.com in New York. Now receiving US disability benefits, Ms Kaye was dismissed by Shugart while in hospital in 2013. She has lodged a lawsuit against Ms Shugart and TheaterMania for human rights violations, slander and unethical business practices.

High Court proceedings
Following Ms Paddock’s dismissal from WhatsOnStage, the company paid no notice, while still seeking to enforce strict post-termination restrictions in relation to her future work. She was also threatened with an expensive High Court injunction, which she had to defend, in February 2014 for setting up her personal blog and Twitter account, www.terripaddock.com , @TerriPaddock.