Tartu County Court finds university librarian was unfairly dismissed

Martin Hallik with his lawyer Kristi Sild in late 2018.
Martin Hallik with his lawyer Kristi Sild in late 2018. Source: ERR

Tartu County Court has found in favor of former University of Tartu library director Martin Hallik, ordering the university to pay him over €90,000 gross for unfair dismissal. Hallik's resignation had been demanded following allegations of improper conduct made against him by unnamed female staff members and others at the university; the court was also critical of the trial-by-media nature of Hallik's dismissal and subsequent coverage. The decision can be appealed.

The court also dismissed Hallik's claim for professional development costs, however, as well as ordering both him and the university to pay their own costs.

Hallink was dismissed from the post in late August 2018 for ''undignified conduct'', though the nature of this conduct was not divulged at the time.

In November an article in daily Postimees revealed claims from over a dozen of Mr Hallik's former colleagues, who alleged he had harassed them at the library's Christmas party in 2017. Mr Hallik also behaved inappropriately towards a female colleague at an Association of European Research Libraries conference in France in July 2018, it was claimed.

The Tartu County Court judgement found that Hallik had indeed engaged in abusive behavior towards one of the library staff, as well as consuming excessive quantities of alcohol, at the 2017 party.

"The other circumstances leading to the termination of the employment contract have not been proven," the court statement read, according to ERR's online news in Estonian.

"Not all witnesses testified that Martin Hallik's behavior at the Christmas party was unacceptable. Some witnesses described Martin Hallik as an amiable leader who was open to discussing matters and avoiding conflicts."

"The Employment Contracts Act provides that an employer may terminate an employment contract due to a breach of duty by said employee, or alternatively a reduction in his or her capacity for work, if the dismissal is preceded by a warning from the employer."

"The court considers that termination of the contract of employment by means of an emergency notice without such warning is not appropriate in the present case." 

The court also drew attention to the fact that most of the allegations regarding the Christmas party concern female colleagues who felt uneasy in relation to Hallik's conduct.

"The accusations are so vague and should definitely be clarified by the university next time you terminate a contract. In addition, it should be borne in mind that a more active or free dance style at a 'rock'n'roll' dance party should certainly not be a cause for termination;" the court said.

Tartu County Court therefore found that Hallik's dismissal was invalid.

The judgment also states that the University of Tartu was not obliged to disclose information about the fact of termination of the employment contract with Hallik, and certainly not the basis for termination, to the media.

"There was no need, and indeed no justification, for such a press release [noting the above]. Publication of a termination notice cannot be justified in the public interest. In a situation where the persons concerned have provided their employer with information on two significantly different legal positions [i.e. Hallik and the staff member who had made the complaint], special care should be taken when publishing the information, as it is not possible to know in advance which statements are correct. Martin Hallik cannot be criticized for commenting on his dismissal following a media inquiry."

The court explained that the loss of income suffered by the plaintiff stood €30,568, which the defendant must be compensated for. However, the court considered it appropriate to increase the award of damages by €60,000 to compensate non-material damage suffered by the plaintiff, giving a final figure of €90,568.

The court also noted that current case law precedents were lacking in such damage cases.

The lawyer advises the university to appeal the decision

Lawyer Leonid Tolstov from the University of Tartu confirmed to ERR that he would advise the university to appeal the judgment.

"I have not yet received the university's authority to appeal, but my recommendation would certainly be to appeal," Tolstov said.

Commenting on the court's ruling, Tolstov said the court had apparently tried to find a middle ground in an open-and-shut situation. 

"In fact, not all episodes of Martin Hallik's inappropriate behavior have been identified, but the court's finding that at Christmas 2017 the plaintiff indeed harassed a library employee and consumed excess levels of alcohol was significant," Tolstov said.

"In our opinion, this very clearly shows that Martin Hallik was acting in bad faith and that the university certainly did not engage in a knee-jerk reaction. However, in its legal assessment, the court found that the university could have considered limiting itself to a warning, rather than immediate dismissal. The university finds this is a very value-based, fundamental issue that higher courts must assess. Whether an employment contract is abused repeatedly, or in for the first time, the first action should be limited to a warning," Tolstov continued.

The staff member who made the Christmas party allegations reportedly returned to employment at the library following Hallik's dismissal.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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