A property investment company admin worker has been awarded over $34,000 after being sacked for allegedly claiming expenses like coffee, alcohol and petrol - allegations she was not given the opportunity respond to.
Cherie Elsegood was found by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) to have been unjustifiably dismissed by Auckland-based Propellor Property Investments, run by Elsegood's cousin, Nikki Connors.
As well as her $70,000 a year salary, Elsegood was "gifted" with VW car and given free accommodation for two years, which Connors said was a generous remuneration package.
In addition, Elsegood was able to claim business expenses for certain items. She failed to submit expense claims for this six months from June to December, 2016.
"When she did finally submit her claims and receipts they appeared to include items she was not entitled to claim for," the ERA decision says.
These included claims for petrol, mobile phone and various food, restaurant and liquor suppliers.
Connors told the ERA she was extremely upset by what she saw as "fraudulent" expense claims by Elsegood, who she said had been treated so well by her and by Propellor. Elsegood denied these allegations.
After initially failing to contact Elsegood to for an explanation, Connors sent what she described as "an emotive text" to get her attention. In it, she accused Elsegood of cheating her and called her a liar.
"I think by your silence and unwillingness to work through this you have now made a decision that will define the rest of your life. There is no point coming back to work and if I was you I would find somewhere else to live immediately," the text said.
Elsegood said she had expected to discuss the receipts she had submitted and what expenses she could claim and those she could not. She said she was not afforded this opportunity.
She said she was "shocked and humiliated" by the accusations against her and took Connors' text message to mean she was sacked.
Elsegood subsequently received a letter from the company inviting her to attend a disciplinary meeting, but she was of the view that she had already been dismissed and therefore was not going to attend.
The ERA agreed with Elsegood that Connors' text "could not be interpreted in any other way than Ms Elsegood being summarily dismissed and that she was required to move out of the apartment", the decision said.
This method of dismissal, the ERA found, was unjustified.
"These are serious allegations and should have been discussed with Ms Elsegood so that
she was able to have her side of the story heard and considered by Propellor," the decision said.
"Certainly, at the Authority's investigation meeting, Ms Elsegood denied submitting fraudulent expense."
She was awarded $15,000 for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings -- the ERA was told that Elsegood became depressed following the dismissal and suffered a painful bout of shingles, lost weight and made regular visits to the doctor.
The ERA further ordered Propellor to pay her $14,583 in lost wages, $1679 in agreed unpaid expenses and $3000 for a bonus that was owed to her.
Propellor Properties in a statement said it "acknowledges the decision by the Employment Relations Authority that a former employee was subject to unjustified dismissal".
The company said it was disappointed by the decision and the amount awarded to the plaintiff.
"Though we accept that in this instance, we failed to follow due process in managing various financial management and honesty issues that came to light, we believe insufficient consideration was given to the plaintiff's conduct prior to her departure from the company."
The company intended to appeal the amount awarded by the ERA. Separately, it would file a legal claim for unpaid rent allegedly owed by Elsegood.
Elsegood has been approached for comment.