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HomeNew ZealandNZ Defence Force spends four years overturning $25,000 employment ruling against them

NZ Defence Force spends four years overturning $25,000 employment ruling against them

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By Jeremy Wilkinson, Open Justice reporter of NZ Herald

New Zealand Army soldiers inside an Australian Army vehicle during the mission rehearsal exercise for Task Group Taji 3 at RAAF Edinburgh, with about 300 Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen prepared for deployment to Iraq in exercise at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide, South Australia.

Photo: NZDF / Supplied

After winning an employment dispute against the New Zealand Defence Force, a woman was awarded $25,000. But that has now been overturned and instead she must pay the agency thousands.

It’s been four years of hell for Juliette Darnley who said the mental toll on her has been huge and that it was all over a relatively minor issue.

“I feel like a bug they’ve decided to squash,” she told Open Justice.

“They have used their might and resources to destroy me. When you Google my name all you find is this … not the good work that I’ve done.”

Darnley was working as a human resources manager for the Defence Force in 2018 and while in the role she handled the payout of another employee – paying them six months’ salary in lieu of their notice.

But the payment was five months more than the outgoing employee was entitled to, according to a new policy NZDF had introduced.

Darnley said she had been informed about the new policy via an email and had simply forgotten about it when she handled the employee’s departure.

An investigation was launched into her performance and she was asked to return from bereavement leave early after her mother died so NZDF could wrap up the investigation.

The NZDF found Darnley guilty of serious misconduct and so she resigned before she could be fired.

But in 2020, she turned to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), claiming she had been the victim of constructive dismissal, where an employee feels they have no choice but to resign.

The authority ruled in her favour and the Defence Force was ordered to pay her $25,000 for breaching its obligation to treat Darnley fairly and reasonably.

However, the NZDF successfully appealed the ERA decision in the Employment Court, which ruled that Darnley had not been constructively dismissed but that she was disadvantaged by NZDF’s unjustified actions and was entitled to compensation.

The court amended the total compensation from $25,000 to only $5400. It also ordered Darnley to pay her former employer $1500 for leaving her role without giving notice.

More recently, NZDF returned to the Employment Court seeking a costs order against Darnley.

In a judgment released this week, the court ruled Darnley should contribute more than $14,000 towards NZDF costs and ordered her to pay it before mid-December.

Costs are generally awarded to the winner of any court battle to partially cover the expense of fighting the case.

But Darnley, who believed she had only lost on a technicality, is distraught at having not only lost the $25,000 payout but also having to pick up a portion of NZDF’s legal bill – not to mention the almost $60,000 she’s spent fighting the case over the past four years.

“I just can’t even rationalise how I’ve won twice in court and now still have to pay.

“I still don’t understand why the Defence Force felt the need to do this to me and why the court system has allowed it to happen.”

Darnley said after NZDF challenged the ERA ruling she had no option but to keep fighting otherwise she wouldn’t have had a voice in the proceedings.

Instead, the court would have just issued a default judgment without her side of the story, she believed.

Darnley told Open Justice that she’d made a mistake by overpaying an employee who was leaving the service, but the response from the NZDF was disproportionately severe.

“It’s just so arrogant,” she said.

“I was actually a really good employee … I was really good at my job.”

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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