By Dr Minh Alexander, retired consultant psychiatrist 22 May 2022
In March 2021 the Employment Tribunal found in favour of Dr Sonia Mann, a salaried GP working in Bristol, formerly employed by the Helios Medical Centre.
A very rare finding of automatic unfair dismissal due to whistleblowing was made, and also findings of other whistleblowing detriment and breach of contract.
ET judgment Dr Sonia Mann v Dr Frank Mulder Richard Laver ta Helios Medical Centre case number 1404530/2019 24 March 2021
The ET has not finished calculating the compensation owed to Dr Mann. However, she was exceptionally awarded £10,500 aggravated damages earlier this month because the Tribunal found that Dr Mann’s employer seriously abused the ET process, with “malice and deceit” to intimidate Dr Mann and increased her suffering.
ET judgment Dr Sonia Mann v Dr Frank Mulder Richard Laver ta Helios Medical Centre case number 1404530/2019 3 May 2022
The case is a distressing example of the lengths that some employers will go to in order to destroy a whistleblower.
Dr Mann started working for the medical centre in 2015 and the records revealed that she was a valued and well thought of worker, as is often the case with many whistleblowers.
The practice manager wrote on 22 May 2019 only a couple of months before Dr Mann was constructively dismissed
“I know I speak on behalf of Rich and Frank when I say you are a valuable asset to the Helios team and it would be a devastating blow to the practice to lose you.”
A couple of weeks before Dr Mann’s constructive dismissal, Richard Laver managing partner wrote on 6 July 2019:
“Sonia, nobody underestimates how good you have been for Helios during the last 4 years and I do sincerely hope that matters can be resolved on Monday.”
Things only turned sour after there were problems with medical staffing and cover which the medical centre failed to manage safely, despite Dr Mann’s concerns and those of others.
Dr Mann was expected to take on an unsafe workload, which posed a threat to the safety of patients and to her own health. A fellow GP in the same position at the medical centre was also distressed, complained of ill health and was admitted to hospital with sepsis.
During her correspondence about the unsafe medical staffing situation, Dr Mann asked whether the medical centre should inform the CQC that it was struggling to provide a safe service.
“6.159. Dr Mann’s email read, “I understand Dagma is trying to get hold of Frank (I have texted him) and will contact Richard so the CQC can be informed….. “ feel it is unsafe to continue to practice under these circumstances as it poses a high risk of potential harm to patients.” (184)
6.160. Mr Laver preferred to look for other solutions. The CQC need only be informed “if we are unable to provide a service.”
Counter-allegations started to be made against Dr Mann. She was also stripped of some shifts.
There was an extraordinary incident of reported bullying in which Dagma Friis Operations Manager repeatedly called Dr Mann “love” during a difficult meeting and then followed her into the car park, whilst Dr Mann was upset and crying:
“As I fled in tears, she followed me across the car park and shouted at me. Other people in the car park who I recognised were staring at me, I felt humiliated.”
Dr Mann filed a grievance, but her employer failed to respond.
| The Employment Tribunal described Dr Mann’s grievance thus: |
“5.23. Her short grievance,
· Lack of support by the Partnership in my role as a Salaried GP
· Unsafe working within the practice which has been highlighted on several occasions with ineffectual resolution ie lack of adequate action about concerns raised. Risk to patient safety
· Poor communication amongst staff members
· No response to last email regarding pay appraisal. (182)”
The Tribunal remarked:
“5.37. It was being seen as the problem that so significantly undermined Dr Mann’s confidence. She felt unsupported, belittled and intimidated. Staff felt free to be rude to her, to ignore her clinical concerns and to seek to override her clinical judgment. The partners did not respond to her reports. Mr Laver confirmed to her that Ms Friis had the authority to run the practice which therefore included for staff to undertake clinical triage without medical training or oversight. The difficulties the practice faced had been very fully documented and the risks to patients and staff highlighted. The serious concerns Dr Mann raised had not been acknowledged but sidelined.
5.38. That had a profound effect on her. She describes it as a toxic environment and that arises out of the management failures including allowing or condoning disrespectful conduct towards Dr Mann while refusing to investigate the concerns she raised. She was anxious and fearful, her sleep badly affected. 5.39. She suffered a severe loss of confidence and that has had lasting consequences for her in that her resilience in working within the NHS, a quality essential to her work, has diminished. She continues to suffer anxiety and loss of sleep.”
When Dr Mann tried to pursue the grievance, Dr Mulder the clinical partner reportedly told her she could resign:
“3.176. In her witness statement, Dr Mann says, “Our conversation began with Frank saying “I heard from Dagma that you have resigned”, I said “I think she would like me to but no I have not resigned”. Frank said “There are two ways this can go. If you were to resign, we would not need to go through the grievance meeting, or you could be off sick for 3 months.”
At this point Dr Mann resigned, setting out in writing that she had been forced to do so by her employer’s breach of trust and confidence.
She filed a claim with the Employment Tribunal. The victimisation continued, as the medical centre refused to give her a reference. The Tribunal noted:
“5.78. She continued to look for salaried roles after the dismissal, originally with some confidence and then with increasing dismay as it became clear the extent to which she was at a disadvantage both in relation to salaried roles and locum roles, because of her whistleblowing. The firm offer that she had was withdrawn within a week of the projected start date.
5.79. We are wholly satisfied that that was because the Respondent refused to give a reference – there may also have been adverse comments about her made by telephone, but the refusal to give even a bare reference was enough to cause the withdrawal of the offer. Mr Laver had, in his kindly and regretful acknowledgement of her resignation letter, commented that she had been one of the mainstays of the practice during her four years with them, and that he would give her a good reference if she required one. However, he was not a clinician, and a reference from a medical practitioner was important. Dr Mulder refused any reference. 5.80. Silence about a GP who has been a member of the practice for four years is damming. 5.81. She has had locum positions refused, and then readvertised. 5.82. Her reputation has been damaged within the local community and perhaps more widely. The respondent’s conduct, their misrepresentations and dishonesty have impacted severely on her prospects for work as a GP in Bristol, including in relation to locum work.”
Most shockingly, after Dr Mann filed a claim in the Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal and other whistleblowing detriment, her employer used the ET response process to produce grounds of resistance (an ET3 form) which amounted to a wholesale character assassination upon Dr Mann of the most extreme nature.
However, this attack was as incompetent as it was vicious. The Employment Tribunal dissected the employer’s flawed claims at length and in detail, dismissing them with condemnation of the motives and unreliability of the witnesses who had contributed to the unpleasant counter-allegations.
These are just a few of the astonishing employer allegations provided by the ET judgment:
“The Claimant had a history of responding in what can be described as a volatile manner to reasonable queries made by the support staff and Respondent 2’s managers.”
“62. The Claimant’s conduct towards (the receptionist) was witnessed by Ms King who wrote a report setting out the Claimant’s unlawful actions of bullying and intimidating a junior member of staff in the work place. 63. Approximately 3 days after the incident of 21 May 2019, the Claimant told Ms King to change her written statement because it would have a negative impact on her upcoming appraisal. The Claimant pressed Ms King until she wrote a fresh statement of events which excluded the fact that the Claimant had shouted at (Mohima) and caused her distress.”
The Tribunal dismissed such unpleasant allegations entirely:
“6.56. The contents of paragraphs 62 and 63 are wholly unreliable”
The Tribunal rejected other unpleasant and groundless insinuations by Dr Mann’s employer:
“Para 95 6.135. At paragraph 95, the Response repeats that the Claimant was removed from the locum rota in anticipation that she would not attend, however “this was entirely based on her history of not attending work at short notice if there was a pending matter to be resolved. 6.136. We have no evidence of any occasion when Dr Mann did not come to work other than on health grounds. She had a good health record until these events. 6.137. There was no evidence put before us that in any way supported this allegation. As already explained, we have no evidence that that was the basis for the decision to cancel the sessions.
6.139. Paragraph 100 asserts that following a fair disciplinary procedure, it is likely that the Claimant would have been dismissed on the grounds of serious misconduct. 6.140. That is not supported by the evidence including the oral evidence. The witnesses identified no serious misconduct and the documentary evidence is that they hoped Dr Mann would come back.”
The Tribunal considered that the allegations made by Dr Mann’s employer were malicious in nature:
“It is the Respondent’s case that the Claimant was aware that her own actions placed junior staff and patients at risk as set out in Ms King’s letter dated 5 July 2019. Consequently at the time she sent her grievance on 12 June 2019, she was aware that any breach of a statutory duty to safeguard patients lay with her and not the Respondents. It is also submitted that the Claimant made disclosures for the purpose of orchestrating events to bring about a false whistleblowing and constructive dismissal tribunal claim. Accordingly her disclosures were not made in good faith or in the public interest.”
6.150. These are amongst the most serious accusations. 6.151. We have not heard evidence that shows that this list of 5 July 2019 was a live issue at the time or that it prompted any action.
6.152. If there is an allegation from a member of staff that a doctor is putting patients at risk, it needs to be taken up not only through internal processes but through the CQC and the GMC. This is presented as an accusation of professional misconduct. 6.153. That was not done. 6.154. From that inaction, it is clear that these matters were not a concern. 6.155. From that, the motive for making the allegations in paragraph 104 has to be questioned. It is difficult to find another explanation than that they were made for malicious purposes to besmirch the claimant and damage her reputation and to mislead the tribunal.”
The Tribunal accepted “beyond doubt” that Dr Mann was a genuine whistleblower:
“6.170. We are satisfied that her disclosures were genuinely made in good faith and in the public interest. It is beyond doubt that she so believed.”
The Tribunal dismissed all of the malicious allegations made by Dr Mann’s employer in its ET3 response:
“6.180. The allegations in the Response that Dr Mann
· Resigned because she refused to follow reasonable management instructions
· Orchestrated events to bring about a false tribunal claim
· Responded in a volatile manner to reasonable queries
· Bullied and intimidated a junior member of staff
· Was aggressive and abusive to a senior receptionist and the reception team
· Caused a senior receptionist to be signed off by her GP due to workrelated stress
· Had a history of failing to attend booked sessions
· Was repeatedly insubordinate
· Conducted herself so aggressively to junior staff that they were absent from work on her shifts · Was guilty of serious misconduct
· Placed junior staff and patients at risk
· Failed to co-operate, preventing her grievance being heard
are unsupported by evidence and untrue.”
Very seriously, the Tribunal determined that the employer had used the ET process to intimidate Dr Mann:
“In the conduct of the defence, the respondent acted in a way that was wholly inappropriate and intimidatory.”
Dr Mann in contrast was accepted by the Tribunal as a clear and credible witness, in contrast to the obvious dissembling by “unreliable” opposing witnesses:
“6.183. In resolving conflicts in this case, we have found Dr Mann herself to be clear and accurate in her evidence. By contrast, we found the Respondent’s witnesses to be unreliable. The Respondent’s witnesses had repeated difficulty in supporting their evidence by reference to the documents, even when referring to the pages they themselves cited in support. That was not the case for the Claimant.”
The Tribunal noted that even in oral evidence, Dr Mulder and Dagma Friis continued to make very serious unsupported claims about Dr Mann:
“6.184. Even in her oral evidence, Ms Friis continued to say that there were times when Dr Mann sat in her room doing nothing. She said there was evidence of that on the computer system. No dates are identified, no records produced and it has never been put to Dr Mann, nor was it put to her in the hearing. 6.185. Dr Mulder in explaining his concerns about Dr Mann spoke again about “hitting” as if that was an actual and current allegation, not a reference to something agreed to have been false months before the Claimant’s resignation. Both say that they were forced to let Mohima go because of Dr Mann’s demands, not because of a serious and false allegation. These are examples of the scope for reputational damage that can be caused by relying on and repeating unchecked allegations and rumour.”
The impact of her employer’s orchestrated untruths against Dr Mann was very serious:
““In December 2019, I received the ET3. I was devastated to read what had been written about me and developed palpitations and anxiety symptoms. My sleep was again disturbed with flashbacks of the traumatic events at Helios. The baseless accusations and allegations, such as being a bully, caused me significant harm as it called into question my professional integrity and my character. There were charts which tried to make it look as if I was not working in line with other GPs, which I knew to be false, there were different versions of what I had worked on on 12 June 2019 and evidence of clear fabrication, for example, the allegations regarding Mohima Hussein and Holly King. I felt betrayed, vulnerable and unprotected by my ex-colleagues being prepared to lie.” (witness statement para 9)”
The ET determined that the employer intimidation, with “malice and deceit”, during the ET process was seriously harmful:
“5.55. It was put to her that the way in which the respondent conducted the litigation had no effect on the way that she suffered. She did not accept that and we do not either. It is inevitable that a response put together with malice and deceit will have an impact and the impact here was profound. This response contained very serious allegations of misconduct and incompetence and even with our findings that they are unfounded, there remains always the risk that people will say, “No smoke without fire”, without exploring any further. She was very aware of the immediate and future damage to her reputation.”
And yet the only ‘crime’ that Dr Mann ever committed was to be a good doctor, and to react as any normal person might, in a highly abnormal and impossible situation. This does not deserve any, let alone an indefinite sentence.
The Tribunal records reveal just how ill the experience made Dr Mann:
“4.15. She found herself lacking confidence and resilience and the ability to tackle the issues that arose at work, fearing a recurrence of the treatment she experienced at Helios when she reported concerns. She was again losing sleep, lying awake with racing thoughts, waking her husband to help her. She found she could not raise even simple issues, asking him to check her emails before sending them.”
It is vital that UK whistleblowing law is reformed so that it recognises conspiracy and orchestrated attacks against whistleblowers (or “mobbing”, which is recognised under some European employment law) as the crimes and assaults that they are.
The medical injuries suffered by many whistleblowers, physical and psychological, are the palpable evidence of these assaults.
|What became of the Helios Medical Centre? |
It is no more. The ET noted:
“The GP practice at Helios was taken over by Mendip Vale Medical Group in April 2021 and insofar as it continued, closed on 31 March 2022.”
A Dr Frank Alexander Mulder remains on the GMC GP register with no restrictions of his practice. This is a LinkedIn entry for a Dr Frank Mulder, described as formerly of Helios Medical Centre. Commissioning documents reveal that Dr Frank Mulder, by then described as a single handed GP, gave notice of retirement on 22 October 2021:
“Dr Frank Mulder, the single handed GP of Helios Medical Centre formally notified the CCG on 22 October 2021 that he wished to give notice of retirement giving rise to the termination of his contract. In November 2021 the PCCC agreed a managed list dispersal for this patient list.”
A Mr Richard Laver was previously listed as a member of the Bristol CCG governing body but is not currently. The Tribunal noted that Richard Laver retired in 2019.
There is a Dagma Friis on LinkedIn who is described as an operations manager as Sea Mills Surgery in Bristol. The surgery does not list such a person in its practice team.
I hope Bristol CCG will have the common decency to recognise Dr Mann’s public service and professionalism, and if she remains in the area, to welcome and not to impede her return to work.
Dr Mann’s ET judgment gives an unusually perceptive and personal account of the devastating effects of serious whistleblower reprisal. There are many more such cases, hidden away from the public eye. Each such case represents a failure to protect the public or sometimes harm that has occurred.
If you wish to protect whistleblowers and to help stop their concerns being covered up, please click on this link and lend your signature to this petition for much better UK whistleblowing law:
Replace weak UK whistleblowing law and protect whistleblowers and the public
Yesterday, the Sunday Times published a useful report of an investigation into very concerning institutional practices by North East Ambulance Service NHS Trust, regarding suppression of information of about care failings in deaths. A jarring note was that the article was used to help revive Jeremy Hunt former Health Secretary’s political fortunes by casting him as the whistleblowers’ friend, who the paper claimed banned NHS gagging. This is untrue. He allowed gagging to continue. Whistleblowers will continue to suffer for as long as politicians play these games and deny them real protection under the law.
I have provided a factual rebuttal of the claim that Hunt banned gags:
Fact checking Jeremy Hunt. The Health Secretary who did NOT ban gags but allowed their continuing, free use
For those unfamiliar with the personal impacts of whistleblowing, this a brief introduction:
The long shadows cast by whistleblowing
Whistleblower Jane Archibald’s unfair dismissal by North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust, and a “nurse” who was not qualified but ran epilepsy clinics and advised on epilepsy medication
Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust sacked Dr Jasna Macanovic consultant nephrologist for whistleblowing to the General Medical Council
Will the Practitioner Performance Advice(formerly NCAS) do more to deter referring employers’ untruths about medical whistleblowers? Perhaps.
Waste Industry: The NHS disciplinary process & Dr John Bestley
In 2015 the Health Select Committee recommended that the UK government should seek out and provide harmed NHS whistleblowers with an “apology and redress”. Needless to say, this has not been forthcoming. Most importantly, self evidently, neither has there been improved protection for new whistleblowers.