Virgin alleges ex-staffer asked for payout ahead of bullying claim

Virgin alleges ex-staffer asked for payout ahead of bullying claim

Virgin Australia has filed a legal defence against a bullying claim by the airline’s former chief pilot Michael Fitzgerald.

In its defence, the airline claimed Fitzgerald only took legal action once his demand for almost $1m to “go quietly” was rejected.

Fitzgerald accused the airline’s CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, of “bullying and harassment” in a fair works claim in April. Fitzgerald went on a period of leave from 19 July 2021 and was then told by the Virgin COO, Stuart Aggs, on 19 October 2021 that Hrdlicka lost confidence in him and should move on.

Virgin denied any wrongdoing by Hrdlicka in its defence that it filed in the Federal Circuit Court yesterday, and said Fitzgerald brought up the prospect of redundancy after his leave.

Aggs told Fitzgerald that redundancy was no longer on the table and that the former chief pilot could leave on his current salary terms.

“No allegation was made at that time that Mr Fitzgerald had been bullied at work, and no further information was provided regarding his medical condition,” the defence states.

Fitzgerald was told two weeks later that he was entitled to 12-weeks pay, or $86,148, if he was to resign, subject to signing a deed of release. Fitzgerald’s barrister, Chris Watters, sent a letter enclosing a demand for $925,000 plus gold status Virgin lounge access, staff travel, related in-air benefits, and other benefits in response to the offer.

Virgin again proposed its original offer, to which Watters replied with a request for a severance payment of $769,700.

“Mr Fitzgerald’s preference is not to engage in complex, expensive and protracted litigation,” Watters’ letter said.

“Mr Fitzgerald is prepared to depart the company quietly, and on good terms, subject to payment of a settlement sum of $769,700 by way of an ex-gratia payment (that is not taxable) to be paid to Mr Fitzgerald’s bank account.”

Virgin’s defence said that the demand was rejected on 17 December and on 22 December Fitzgerald filed an application for his “stop bullying order” to the Fair Work Commission.

“This was the first occasion on which Mr Fitzgerald had ever raised any allegations that he had been bullied at work,” said the defence.

The former chief pilot’s application was set down for a conference in the commission on 1 March and Fitzgerald had to attend two independent medical assessments at the airline’s request. Aggs made the decision to terminate Fitzgerald’s position, based on the receipt of medical reports that said he was “permanently unfit for work.”

“No part of Mr Aggs’ reasons for dismissing Mr Fitzgerald, were because he made an application for stop bullying orders,” said the defence.

Virgin Australia declined to comment on the matter when Travel Weekly reached out.

The matter will be revisited at mediation on 15 November.

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