‘We will see who has big balls’: the dismissal of the equestrian center worker who sent an allegedly threatening text is confirmed

A horse riding instructor trainee who was fired because his employer saw an alleged threat of violence in a text has failed his unfair dismissal claim.

We’ll see who has the big balls when my family and [my partner’s family] come meet her on Friday,” the man wrote in a message to a colleague submitted as evidence to the Labor Relations Commission.

Shane Kehoe accused the Fettercairn Youth Horse Project (FYHP) of wrongfully firing him in an attempt to avoid paying his severance pay.

An attorney for the youth project denied wrongful termination, saying his board was “immediately and extremely concerned about a threat of violence occurring in the yard” in light of the content of the text, which was presented to him on June 28, 2019, a fifteen days after shipment.

Michelle Quinn of Colm O’Cochlain & Company Solicitors, appearing on behalf of the horse center, said an emergency meeting was called the same day, the hearing was reported and her minutes were introduced into evidence.

Ms Quinn said representatives from the Tallaght Travelers Community Development Project and other board members present concluded that the prospect of the two families coming to the courtyard to confront the manager “posed a threat of violence that it was real.”

She said the horse project took advice from gardaí on the matter and decided to close their yard to the public that day.

“Respondent was at all times concerned for the safety and well-being of the relevant staff member and for the children, parents, youth helpers and other staff who would be present in the yard and to whom she owed a duty of care,” said Ms. Quinn submitted.

“There was a genuine fear of a threat of violence and the possibility of a staff member being harmed. Defendant couldn’t just ignore that,” she added.

Gerry Fitzgibbon, representing Mr. Kehoe, said at the hearing that “the employer never considered any alternative to dismissal, despite the fact that there were no disciplinary records or sanctions against him or any pending proceedings.”

“The matter was mishandled and grossly unfair and a cynical attempt to avoid paying the plaintiff severance pay,” it added.

He said his client had never been asked at the disciplinary hearing to explain or clarify what he meant by the “big pawns” wording.

The minutes of the emergency board meeting established that it was necessary to “prevent potential criminal action” which, according to Fitzgibbon, was “baseless.”

“[My client] He worked for the Fettercairn Junior Horse Project for a number of years and his wife and family were well known,” he said. “There was never any incident at that time that could give rise to the belief that both families ‘posed a threat of violence that was real,’” he added.

“Such allegations had the potential to bring disputes to the whistleblower’s door and… [that of] his wife’s family, who are members of the Traveling Community,” added Mr. Fitzgibbon.

He said that Mr. Kehoe’s meaning in the text was that he “wanted to meet with his manager to discuss his concerns rather than any perceived underlying threat.”

The youth project took the position that this did not stand up to scrutiny.

Fitzgibbon added that some members of the disciplinary panel that investigated his client for alleged serious misconduct were involved in the final decision to fire him.

In a decision published Sunday, adjudicating official Orla Jones noted that Mr. Kehoe “tried to claim that the text message was about a scheduled meeting with the defendant” involving his family and in-laws.

It found that no such arrangement existed “apart from the intended purpose interpreted by the recipient of the text.”

Ms Jones noted that a youth project witness said “his concerns were heightened” when Mr Kehoe’s mother drove through the yard “at a dangerous speed that had the potential to spook ponies” on one occasion.

The same witness also mentioned references in Mr. Kehoe’s texts to having “nothing to lose” and “taking the manager with him,” Ms. Jones noted.

There were “procedural difficulties” with the firing, but they were not enough to make it procedurally unfair, he wrote.

In an environment that includes children and potentially dangerous animals, “it is clear that the respondent could not take the risk,” he wrote.

It found that the youth project’s actions were not unreasonable and that the decision to fire was not unfair, and stated that Mr. Kehoe’s claim was not well founded.

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