Director who claimed she was scapegoated for A&E slump loses case

Published on: 13 Jul 2021
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A hospital operations director has lost her case for unfair dismissal after claiming she had been made a scapegoat for performance failures.

Suzanne Hargreaves lost her claim of constructive dismissal against Lancashire Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust. However, the judgment was critical of the behaviour of the FT’s chief executive at a heated meeting.

Ms Hargreaves had worked at the trust for 25 years and been operations director for five. She came under pressure from chief executive Karen Partington after performance against the type-one A&E standard — supposed to remain above 95 per cent — dipped to 53 per cent during 2017. This was the third lowest in the country, behind neighbouring Blackpool Teaching Hospitals FT and Hillingdon Hospitals FT in London.

Ms Hargreaves had operational responsibility for A&E. The tribunal heard that at one meeting in December 2017, Ms Partington became so angry with her ops director that she had to leave the room. The chief executive later apologised by text.

Former nurse Ms Hargreaves announced she was leaving in April 2018. Three other divisional directors, in the surgery, medicine and support services divisions, announced their departure in the same month — something the trust said at the time was “an unfortunate coincidence”.

In addition to its A&E performance problems, the provider faced financial issues. In January 2018, the trust had to inform NHS Improvement its predicted deficit had risen from £19.1m to £42m.

Ms Hargreaves told the tribunal that Ms Partington and deputy chief executive Paul Havey had “calculated to attribute responsibility to me and their attempts to focus on operational effectiveness had been a calculated plan to sidestep personal responsibility for the increased deficit.

“This made me feel like a scapegoat and I felt that I had raised this as an issue on a number of occasions but that this was a developing theme which amounted to a breach of my employment contract.”

She added: “I believe that if I had not been targeted in this way that either [Mr Havey or Ms Partington] (or possibly both) would have been removed from their position.”

However, Mr Havey told the tribunal Ms Hargreaves “gave no indication that she thought my behaviour had contributed to her decision” when she told him about her resignation. 

In his verdict, employment judge Leach said: “It is clear that there were factors other than operational issues contributing to the deficit position.”

He ruled that while there was a single incident where the chief executive had “overstepped the mark”, this was a “one-off at the time and within an employment relationship that was otherwise supportive”. The judge said Ms Hargreaves had not been forced out.

The incident in December 2017 saw Ms Hargreaves join a meeting 10 minutes late — something the judgment said was not an issue because of the extra hours she worked — after a bad night in A&E.

Judge Leach’s findings of fact were that “[Ms Hargreaves] entered the room in a friendly manner, greeting everyone with a smile, wearing a Christmas jumper. Ms Partington did not react well.”

The judgment also noted Ms Hargreaves did not hand in her notice until four months after this incident.

The tribunal heard Ms Hargreaves started grievance proceedings after her request for a severance package of £300,000, covering two years’ salary plus notice, was refused.

The tribunal also rejected a claim she had not been given the financial information to make a plan that addressed the performance problems.

Ms Hargreaves is now associate director of strategy and transformation at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay FT.

In a statement, she told HSJ: “I would like to thank the tribunal for considering my claim and I wish Lancashire Teaching Hospitals FT the very best in a period of considerable challenge for them and the whole NHS.”

The trust said in a statement: “The trust has been transparent and cooperated in full with this thorough employment tribunal, resulting in the claimant’s claim being dismissed. We now consider this matter closed.”

Ms Partington announced in January that she would retire at the end of 2021, having led the trust for 10 years. She will be replaced by Kevin McGee, who also runs the provider collaborative for Lancashire and South Cumbria. Mr McGee will step down as accountable officer at East Lancashire Hospitals Trust and Blackpool Teaching Hospitals FT.

Lancashire Teaching Hospitals FT has had long-running issues with its A&E performance. By January 2019, some time after the events involved in this tribunal, A&E performance was still below 57 per cent on the type-one measure, down from 72 per cent in January 2017.

Meanwhile, in May 2019, senior medics at the trust took to social media to decry their own board for failing to tackle the problems in A&E.

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