The Court of Appeal in recent case Reliance Telecommunications Limited v. Mr. Olaore Olufemi Adegboyega (reported at (2017) 8 CLRN) has held that an employer is deemed to have waived its rights in insisting on issuance of a formal letter of confirmation to its employee if the said employee is allowed to continue in his employment beyond the stipulated probationary period.
An employment offered to a person on probation need not be express or in writing therefore it may be implied subject to the facts available and how the employer treats the employee.
The key ingredient according to the court of Appeal in this case is that the employer must have treated the employee on probation like a confirmed staff. The court of appeal also ruled that the action of an employer in representing the employee to third parties as a staff of the employer months after the probationary period ought to have expired is proof of estoppel by conduct
With instances of such representations made by an employer the employment of the staff on probation is deemed confirmed by conduct.
This decision is important to check the habit of some employers who continuously perpetuate unfair labour practices on employees.
Such employers fail or refuse to confirm the appointment of employees, only to later turn around and rely on the fact that the employee is on probation in stopping obligations due to the employee or denying him some benefits.
Summary Of The Case
In 2004, the respondent entered into a contract of employment with the appellant. The terms of contract indicated that the respondent would be on probation for a period of three months and either party could immediately terminate the employment during the period of probation.
Furthermore, the contract of employment stipulated that after three months, the employment of the respondent would be confirmed and that three months’ notice will be required to be given by each party in case of termination of the employment.
After the expiration of the three months probationary period, the appellant failed to confirm the employment of the respondent but continued to retain his services, paying him his entitlements and making representations to third parties suggesting that the respondent was in its employment. The relationship between the parties continued until sometime in 2005 when the appellant terminated the employment of the respondent without giving him any notice.
The respondent was aggrieved and filed a suit against the appellant at the High Court of Lagos State alleging wrongful dismissal and claiming damages. After the conclusion of trial, the judge gave judgment in favour of the respondent and held that the appellant was liable in damages to the respondent. The trial court however, failed to consider and make pronouncement on the counter-claim incorporated into the statement of defence of the appellant.
The appellant was dissatisfied with the judgment of the trial court and filed a notice of appeal at the Court of Appeal, Lagos Division urging the court to reverse the decision of the trial court. One of the issues formulated for determination was whether the trial court was right in holding that the respondent’s employment was deemed confirmed immediately after the probation period without meeting the other conditions precedent and in the absence of a formal confirmation letter.
Arguing the issue, learned counsel for the appellant submitted that it is trite that parties are bound by the terms of contract freely entered into. Reference was made to a term of the contract of employment stating that the offer of employment is subject to a satisfactory medical examination, satisfactory completion of a three months’ probation period to take effect from date of assumption of duty and that the offer is subject to other terms as set out in the letter of employment and conditions of service as may be determined by the board from time to time.
Learned counsel posited that since the employment of the respondent was not confirmed by the appellant before the termination, a condition precedent was not fulfilled and as such the respondent was not entitled to the three months’ notice. Counsel urged the court to resolve the issue in favour of the appellant.
Responding to the argument of the appellant, learned counsel for the respondent relied on the decision in Kablemetal Nigeria Limited v. Gabriel Ativie to submit that in an action for wrongful termination of employment, the claimant is under obligation to plead and prove not only the appointment but also the terms and conditions for it to constitute the foundation of the action. Counsel submitted further that even though the contract of employment stipulated that the employment of the respondent must be confirmed after three months, the fact of non-confirmation was inconsequential and that the trial court was right in holding that the employment of the respondent was deemed confirmed since the appellant allowed the respondent to continue to work beyond the three months’ probationary period stipulated in the contract.
Learned counsel relied on Obafemi Awolowo University v. Dr. A.K. Onabanjo and urged the court to discountenance the argument of the appellant and resolve the issue in favour of the respondent.
In resolving the issue, the court held thus:
The Appellant having allowed the Respondent to continue in his employment beyond the three months’ probationary period, paying him all his entitlements and further making representation via Exhibit C5 to third parties affirming that the Respondent is its employee several months after the end of the probationary period must be deemed to have waived its rights in insisting on issuance of a formal letter of confirmation to the Respondent. In such circumstances as obtained in the instant case Estoppel by conduct/representation can readily be invoked.
See: Military Government of Lagos State & Ors v. Adeyiga & Ors (2012) LEPLR 7836 (SC)
Issue is resolved in favour of the respondent.
M.T Odechima with V. I. Okafor for Appellant
TS. Adewuyi with T. O. Shittu Miss for Respondent
The full judgment is fully reported at (2017) 8 CLRN (Summary inclusive)