Judge rules dismissal of Sunderland charity leader ‘a sham’ – and orders damages

Kevan Martin, the former chief executive of Neraf (North East Regional Alcohol Forum).
Kevan Martin, the former chief executive of Neraf (North East Regional Alcohol Forum).
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THE ‘figurehead’ of a Sunderland charity which helps people battle addiction was unfairly dismissed from the organisation he founded, a tribunal has ruled.

Former alcoholic Kevan Martin turned his life around and set up Northern Engagement into Recovery from Addiction Foundation (NERAF) in Sunderland 10 years ago.

But last December, Mr Martin was sacked after a disciplinary process branded ‘inherently flawed’ and ‘a sham’ by an employment judge.

The organisation, now rebranded Achieve with NERAF, and based in John Street, has been ordered to pay Mr Martin an undisclosed sum of damages after he took the case to a tribunal.

Mr Martin, 53, battled alcoholism for five years and has been praised for his unique insight into addiction problems.

“I’m a recovering alcoholic myself,” the former builder said. “I didn’t find the right support so I set it up. It has been nationally acclaimed as a model of excellence. I used to speak all over the country and NERAF was recognised for putting Sunderland on the map.”

Last year, Mr Martin, who now lives in Cumbria, fell out with the board of trustees. A lack of funding meant the organisation faced a restructure to survive and the board wanted him to stand down from his position as chief executive.

In September last year, Mr Martin posted comments on Facebook criticising the chairman of trustees and implied that the board was going to sack him because he didn’t have business qualifications.

Mr Martin was suspended and a disciplinary process was launched with an external firm of HR advisors. He was given a final written warning and told he would be given a different role. But he was dismissed on December 6 before the deadline to accept the warning had expired.

Making his ruling, Judge Nick Garside said the evidence before him suggested that the disciplinary procedure was ‘a sham.’

He also said that NERAF failed to show the reason for dismissal, adding that “the way the disciplinary procedure was conducted was inherently unfair”.

Judge Garside said Mr Martin was “well respected in the community and had a great deal of experience in substance abuse controls.”

He said the ‘inference from the evidence’ points at trustees wanting Mr Martin to cease to be CEO.

“If he had relinquished that role he would not have been dismissed,” the judge said.

He added: “The procedure adopted to bring about the dismissal is so flawed that it is impossible to say what the outcome would have been if a fair procedure would have been used.

“The evidence points to Mr Martin being retained within the organisation.” He added: “Mr Martin should not have made the Facebook posts. It was inappropriate.”

But he concluded: “The damage to the organisation from the posting is exaggerated by the respondent. It had a limited audience. It was done while Mr Martin was feeling vulnerable in his position.

“It is blameworthy conduct; it should not have been posted and was open criticism of the chair of trustees.

“It triggered the disciplinary investigations and the disciplinary hearing. But it did not contribute to Mr Martin’s dismissal. The dismissal followed Mr Martin’s reaction to the trustees’ decision to give him a final written warning. I do not regard that reaction as blameworthy.

“His reaction was to be expected. As he puts it in his witness statement the respondent organisation was ‘his baby’.”

Speaking after the case, Achieve with NERAF deputy director Jude Weston said: “This has been a particularly difficult time for all concerned at NERAF and all have maintained a professional approach during somewhat difficult circumstances.

“Achieve with NERAF are clear that during the tribunal, Kevan Martin did not at any time dispute that his actions resulted in gross misconduct, however, due to a technicality/process issue, the judge has favoured Kevan.

“Achieve with NERAF would like to thank all for their continuing support and wish Kevan well in any new pursuit.”