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Infidelity & Lies – Serious Misconduct?

A teacher engaged in an adulterous affair with a school parent while he was employed as the principal of a Christian school for girls. He denied the affair in conversations with the Board Chair, following which his employment contract was terminated without notice. In subsequent litigation with the school, the teacher claimed over $340,000 in unpaid remuneration due to the school’s failure to give him the contractually required 18 month notice period for termination. The school claimed that it had a right to terminate his employment summarily as his actions constituted serious misconduct in the course of his contractual duties as principal.

The Queensland Court of Appeal held that the affair itself was not misconduct, let alone serious misconduct, as adultery is not illegal. The contract did not provide that adultery would be regarded as misconduct. The court noted that, although the affair could be characterised as being immoral, the contract did not state that simply immoral or “unchristian” conduct would constitute misconduct. Indeed, although references to the school’s Christian mission statement and its expectations for the principal’s Christian behaviour were present in the teacher’s previous employment contracts with the school, they were not present in the employment contract he was under at the time of termination.

However, the teacher’s misleading of the board about his affair was found to be serious misconduct. The misconduct was exacerbated by the fact that the teacher’s dishonesty and denials continued for several months. Despite this, the school’s claim ultimately failed as the court found that, on its interpretation of the contract, the teacher’s reporting to the board was not in the course of his performance of his contract.

This case illustrates that the concept of Christian misconduct does not entirely align with the legal notion of misconduct. Unless an employment contract specifically states that “unchristian” conduct such as extramarital affairs constitutes misconduct, a school may have no legal right to immediately terminate the contract of an employee in such a situation.

Schools should consider whether their employment contracts contain sufficient definitions of misconduct for their purposes, and should ensure their employees are fully informed of what is expected of them.

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