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Firm to pay €40k to man dismissed for sending 'inappropriate' Family Guy message to colleague

The Workplace Relations Commission found that Regeneron unfairly dismissed Robert Libera for gross misconduct.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Tero Vesalainen

A BIO-PHARMA firm employee who sent a female coworker a “seriously ill advised” Facebook ‘Family Guy’ message containing inappropriate language of a possible sexual innuendo nature has been awarded €40,380 for his unfair dismissal.

This follows Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) Adjudicator Peter O’Brien finding that the main Irish arm of US firm Regeneron unfairly dismissed Robert Libera for gross misconduct on 20 March 2019.

Regeneron has its manufacturing base in Ireland at the former Dell site in Limerick and Libera worked as a Manufacturing Support Lead with the company.

Regeneron Ireland DAC dismissed Libera after a 22-year-old woman employed by a third party supplier on site made a complaint concerning a Facebook messenger exchange between the two on 18 January 2019.

In her initial complaint, the woman said that after Libera had given her a fruit juice, he hinted it may have contained a biological fluid or otherwise and messaged her about “part of him” being “inside of her” and “if she felt part of him inside her”.

In his findings, O’Brien determined that that the text message may have been intended to be humorous but can but be considered, in isolation “as inappropriate, offensive and contain possible sexual innuendo”.

O’Brien stated that whatever Libera intended, “the message was seriously ill advised and contained inappropriate language of a possible sexual innuendo nature”.

O’Brien that that Libera’s case “is very weak on the substantive issue” but primarily succeeds on procedural grounds. In making the award, O’Brien weighed Libera’s contribution to his loss at 40%.

O’Brien said: “Sending a message like he did to a female work colleague, no matter how the Complainant (Mr Libera) deemed it to be trivial or funny was inappropriate, ill-judged and resulted in serious consequences for Mr Libera.”

The woman made a complaint concerning the message and met with Regeneron investigators where she initially described the exchange to Regeneron investigators as having “a big impact on her that weekend and was the worst weekend of her life”.

The woman initially stated she was terrified and felt physically ill as a result of the exchange with Libera.

However, Libera told the WRC that he accompanied the text with a clip from US cartoon Family Guy which almost exactly states what Libera stated in the text exchange.

‘No bad intentions’

Documents provided to Libera show that the woman had not seen the Family Guy clip before making her complaint while all three Regeneron decision makers who dismissed Libera confirmed they did not see the YouTube clip.

Legal representatives for Libera say that the Family Guy clip “proves that no bad intentions existed in the communications and was intended as a joke”.

Describing himself as a “big Family Guy fan”, Libera expected the woman would know the context of his comments as they were well known and common phrases in Family Guy.

Two days later, on 20 January 2019, the woman emailed Regeneron to say that she was withdrawing her complaint and that she now had a different view of the messages.

O’Brien stated that nearly all of the woman’s comments in the 20 January email favoured Libera and that the woman did not want the investigation to proceed.

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However, O’Brien said that the email was never made available to Libera during the investigation of the initial complaint and not made available to the Regeneron decision makers who decided that Libera should be dismissed.

O’Brien opined: “it is important to note that had this email been available to either Mr Libera or the Decision Makers in this case a very different outcome than dismissal could possibly have been an outcome”.

O’Brien said that it is indeed questionable if any investigation at all should have commenced into the allegation based on the clarifying comments by the woman who made the initial complaint.

He stated that the failure to provide the 20 January email to Libera was a serious natural justice omission which put him at a serious disadvantage in defending his position.

O’Brien stated it was a very serious flaw in Regeneron’s case as the woman who received the text had subsequently significantly amended her views on the issue and did not want an investigation to proceed.

The 20 January email was only made available to Libera’s solicitors, Keating Connolly Sellors Solicitors, after they had made a GDPR data application after his dismissal.

The legal representatives stated that the actions of Libera, with his good prior record, should have resulted in a much lesser sanction than dismissal.

They stated that Libera’s career has been derailed and he has suffered financially, as well as long-term damage to his career prospects.

About the author:

Gordon Deegan

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