RDJ v SGF: proof and family violence leave

In our article in July, we discussed the Domestic Violence – Victims Protections Act 2018, which amended the Holidays Act 2003 (Act) and created entitlements to family violence leave.

Section 72G of the Act provides that where an employee requests family violence leave, an employer may ask for proof that the employee is a person affected by family violence.

Unhelpfully, the Act does not define what proof means. The recently released Employment Relations Authority (Authority) decision, RDJ v SGF [2023] NZERA 462 provides a worked example of the Authority’s wrestling with this issue.

The facts

The facts of this matter involve a complicated, and messy overlap between family disputes over childcare arrangements (which did become violent) and the workplace. The employee in this case (RDJ) was employed by SGF, three years after he and his ex-partner (ZEL) had separated. RDJ had previously ended his financial interest in SGF on separation but ZEL remained Managing Director of the business.

Despite ZEL’s lack of engagement with the day-to-day aspects of SGF, she continued to liaise with RDJ regarding contentious family disputes (both inside and outside of the workplace). During one heated discussion, ZEL physically assaulted RDJ’s partner and subsequently received Police diversion. Shortly afterwards, RDJ was invited to a meeting with ZEL at SGF’s offices, which RDJ thought was about work but ended up being about parenting matters and, again, became heated.

In February 2021, SGF received a complaint from its second-largest customer, about RDJ’s work along with a request that RDJ be removed from working on her portfolio of properties. Shortly after this work was reassigned to another employee.

After the resignation of an office administrator in March 2022, ZEL sent an email about a meeting to discuss a potential restructure so that property managers would complete more of their own administration and a change to salary structure.

RDJ resigned prior to this meeting, and later raised a constructive dismissal. He was not successful in his claim.

Failure to fairly consider family violence leave application

RDJ was successful in his claim that SGF had failed to fairly consider his family violence leave application.

Two weeks into his notice period, in mid-March, RDJ applied for family violence leave from his manager, Mr F. RDJ’s email set out that “due to ongoing issues that directly involve the managing director of SGF, ZEL, I am unable to discuss this matter with her.”

When asked to provide evidence, RDJ responded with copies of text messages he had received from ZEL, a photograph of a bite mark on his partner’s arm (which had been inflicted by ZEL) and stated he had received abusive phone calls, messages and visits from her. RDJ volunteered to talk to a third party about his reasons further and expressed concerns that ZEL could not handle this issue in a fair and impartial manner.

Mr F insisted that he needed proof that RDJ was “the victim of domestic violence”.

In the course of the Authority investigation, it became clear that ZEL had been involved in drafting Mr F’s email responses. ZEL eventually took over from Mr F and declined RDJ’s request for family violence leave.

Authority decision

The Authority held that it was not reasonable for ZEL, given her personal involvement in the events leading to the leave request, to be the decision maker in respect of RGH’s family violence leave request. RGH was entitled to remedies for unjustified disadvantage in respect of this issue and was awarded $7,000 in compensation for distress and humiliation under section 123(1)(c)(i) of the Act.

RDJ also sought payment of his family violence leave. In its discussion on proof, the Authority noted that “the bar to proof is a low one” and that “any proof” that an employee was affected by family violence would be sufficient.

The Authority here held that, based on the material provided to SGF and weighing the background, a reasonable employer would have accepted that the interactions between RDJ and ZEL constituted family violence and RDJ would have granted the leave requested.

Key learnings for employers

If you have decided that asking for proof of family violence is necessary in considering whether to grant the leave, the proof does not need to be on an ‘official’ looking form (such as a police report, or doctor’s certificate). Text messages which demonstrate abusive language may be sufficient (as was the case here, combined with photos of physical violence). In our earlier article, we set out that a letter from a family friend may be appropriate.

Employers should consider carefully whether the person making the decision about family violence leave is best placed to do so. In RDJ v SGF, the Authority commented that even allowing for the small size of the business, it was clearly inappropriate that the alleged perpetrator of family violence was in the position of making a decision. Employers should also ensure the person employees can raise concerns of family violence with is approachable, and would deal with such matters with confidentiality and sensitivity.

In RDJ v SGF, the timing of when the family violence (at least the physical aspect) occurred and when family violence leave was sought is notable. The physical incidents took place on 4 November 2020, and RDJ sought family violence leave on 17 March 2021. Importantly, section 72C of the Holidays Act 2003 records that to be entitled for family violence leave, when the family violence occurred is irrelevant, “even if the family violence occurred before the person became an employee”.

Matters involving family violence can be confronting and difficult to navigate. Our employment team are on hand to assist employers and employees alike when it comes to requests for family violence leave.

Family violence: where to get help or refer others

  • Women’s Refuge – 0800 733 843.
  • Shine Free call 0508 744 633 between 9am and 11pm (for men and women).
  • 1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor.
  • Kidsline 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.
  • What’s Up 0800 942 8787 (for 5 to 18-year-olds). Phone counselling available Monday-Friday, noon-11pm and weekends, 3pm-11pm. Online chat is available 3pm-10pm daily.
  • Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz, or find online chat and other support options here.
  • If you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 111.

Sexual violence: where to get help or refer others

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