Doctoral students: when does supervision become harassment?

September 18th, 2013

The case of Saha v Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine [2013] EWHC 2438 (QB) concerned a £1.5m claim for harassment by a doctoral student against her supervisor Following a hearing that lasted 7 days, with the claimant acting in person, Hamblen J dismissed the claim in its entirety, summarising his conclusions at [160] as follows:

“I find that a number of the alleged incidents are not proven, and those that are proved do not involve harassment. At most they involve treating Miss Saha in an abrupt, peremptory and at times vexed manner. They do not involve aggressive, bullying or threatening behaviour.”

Although one always has to be careful with findings made in relation to particular facts, the judgment offers some interesting and helpful guidance on how and when the line into harassment may be crossed, both in the context of the supervisor/student relationship and possibly in other analagous relationships.  It is also of interest because of key part emails played in the complaint.

The judge said this about the lengthy email sent in June 2004 which was described by the claimant as the “primary attack”:

“74.  I accept that the aim of the email was to provide constructive criticism but the manner in which that was done was unfortunate. Although positive points were made, there were a litany of complaints expressed in a somewhat intemperate way. I recognise that Dr Soldati is Swiss and that English is not his first language and that he has a habit of liberally using exclamation marks. Nevertheless there were a number of unfortunately expressed complaints, such as “That is unacceptable”; “it is a complete shame that you have not even done that!!!”; “you prefer to sabotage that effort!!!”; “it is very bad for me and a disaster for you!”;“how do you want me to accept that?”; “Therefore, go!”.

75. As to the content of the message, many of the points made were justified, as Miss Saha acknowledged in evidence…

79. In summary, this was an inappropriately expressed email that made a litany of complaints in an overemphatic way. However, the email started and finished on positive points. It was meant to be constructive and to seek to move matters forward. It expressed Dr Soldati’s full support and invited response and discussion. It did, however, cause Miss Saha real distress.”

In his conclusions the judge found was that there were a number grounds upon which Dr Soldati’s behaviour in June 2004 could be criticised: see [161-162].  A number of his emails were expressed in an intemperate, high handed and at times accusatory tone, he was wrong about the number of hours she was putting in, and his concerns led him to make unreasonable claims and demands in relation to working hours and to proving her working presence.  Further, he was wrong to share a confidential complaint by Miss Saha with other members of the team.

There were some mitigating or contextual features: underlying the emails was a concern that Miss Saha’s PhD should be kept on track: there were real issues concerning her progress and the need for a clear work plan going forward and the complaint about working hours was made in good faith and in her perceived interests.  Nonetheless, the judge found that if Dr Soldati had continued to act in the same manner, and to insist on unreasonable demands and to ignore confidentiality issues, a course of conduct capable of constituting harassment might have been made out.

However, the judge found that he did not do so but instead took on board criticisms made of his behaviour, did not continue to insist on matters such as particular working hours or proof of work presence and did not continue to flout her confidentiality. Although he did insist on a work plan being produced, that was found to be a reasonable request and in line with Miss Saha’s MPhil transfer report.  There was little contact subsequently with no further proven incidents and very few emails, and that being so, the judge concluded as follows:

166…[T]here is simply no sufficient course of unreasonable conduct capable of constituting harassment. In any event, I find that his conduct during that summer period, whilst unreasonable and unjustified in some respects, did not cross the boundary from unreasonable and unattractive conduct into oppressive and unacceptable behaviour.

167.  In particular, at all times Dr Soldati’s prime motivation, both subjectively and objectively, was to get Miss Saha’s work on track. He repeatedly stressed this aim and his full support for her, as well as praising positive aspects of her performance. His conduct was not objectively calculated to cause alarm or distress, even if at times it did cause distress.

168.  Further, many of the matters complained of were not targeted solely at Miss Saha.  The average 10 hour day working requirement, the keeping of up to date lab books, and the need to attend more lectures and seminars were all addressed to the whole group as well as Miss Saha.

169.  The context is also important. As her supervisor Dr Soldati had an obligation to ensure that Miss Saha completed the milestones necessary to secure her PhD and was working appropriately to that end. The need properly to plan ahead was supported by her MPhil transfer report and there was a degree of urgency to ensure everything was on track because of Dr Soldati’s imminent departure to Geneva.”

Paul Greatorex

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