Ex-PwC trainee nets €34,000 unfair dismissal payout after failing accountancy exam

The former employee at the Big Four accounting firm is fighting part of his case in Europe’s highest court.

By Saurya Cherfi

A TRAINEE ACCOUNTANT has seen an award of compensation by the Employment Appeals Tribunal for unfair dismissal more than quadrupled in the Circuit Civil Court.

Peter Nowak had appealed the decision of the tribunal which last year found he had been unfairly dismissed by Big Four accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers Services, otherwise known as PwC, awarding him €7,500 compensation.

Judge Francis Comerford today awarded him €34,000. The judge said Nowak, who became a trainee with the firm in 2006, was dismissed in 2009 after he failed to pass an examination to qualify as a chartered accountant.

He had signed an open-ended employment contract with the firm in 2006 to work as a trainee accountant in the business advisory services department. He had later been asked to sign a training contract for a three-and-a-half year period.

Judge Comerford said PwC claimed that it was a term of Nowak’s employment that he pass three examinations required to become a fellow with Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Contract dispute

The employer claimed the contract stated that it could terminate the employment if Nowak failed any year’s examination. Nowak, who represented himself in court, denied this and claimed he was entitled to continue his employment with the firm.

PwC claimed that after Nowak failed the examination in summer 2008 and again the following autumn, they had written telling him they were willing to support him for one final attempt. His employment had been terminated when he had failed again in 2009.

Nowak claimed the accounting institute allowed students six attempts to pass the exams. PwC had argued that it had decided in 2006 to allow trainees two opportunities to sit the exams.

The judge said he was satisfied that Nowak’s contract of employment did not expressly state that it could be terminated if he failed to pass an examination.

“The employer has failed to establish the existence of the contractual provision upon which it relied to dismiss him. The dismissal being based on the assertion of an entitlement that did not exist was unfair,” he said.

‘Inadequate and unclear’

Judge Comerford said clearly worded contracts could have ensured that what was intended by the employer was understood and accepted by Nowak. He was of the view the documentation was inadequate and unclear.

The judge said Nowak, who has been unemployed since his dismissal seven years ago, should have taken steps to ensure some employment and found that reinstating him in his previous position was not appropriate.

“The clear evidence of Mr Nowak was that he was more concerned with establishing that he had actually passed the examination and intends proceeding to the European Court of Justice with his claim to obtain copies of the examination scripts,” he said.

Nowak claimed he passed the examination and had asked to see his exam scripts and felt he was entitled to access his exam papers under the Data Protection Acts.

The accounting institute refused, stating it was not obliged to do so as the exam papers did not constitute personal data. Nowak later sought the assistance of the Data Protection Commissioner, who had agreed with the institute.

Nowak challenged that decision through the Circuit Court, the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court which, in May, referred the case to European Court of Justice claiming it needed guidance as to whether an exam script constitutes personal data.