Court Sanctions UBA’s Affiliate For Sacking Worker Illegally, Orders To Pay Damages

Uba Pensions Custodian Limited, the pension arm of the United Bank for Africa (UBA) Plc, has come under the hammer of the National Industrial Court, Port-harcourt, Rivers State division, for sacking it’s Senior Custody Trainee, Mr. Celestine Igwe Chibuzor, unlawfully.

Consequently, Justice P. I. Hamman, ordered the UBA’s pension firm to pay Mr. Celestine, a total sum of N7, 453, 991, 05 million, for the unlawful act, being the claimant’s withheld salary for the month of July and the shortfalls in the payments for the months of August to November, 2020, and general damages.

Justice Hamman also declared the firm’s act as wrongful and unlawful.

The judge, while ordered that the terms of the judgment must be complied with within 30 days from today, failing which it shall attract interest at 10% per annum until it is completely liquidated.

The claimant, Mr. Celestine through his lawyer, V. N. Ayogu, in a suit numbered NICN/PHC/22/2021, had asked the court for the followings: “a declaration that the suspension of the Claimant by the Defendant was done without the due process of law and therefore liable to be set aside.

“A declaration that the termination of the employment of the Claimant by the defendant for an offence the Claimant knows absolutely nothing about is unlawful, wrongful, unjustifiable, unwarranted and carries with it a stigma that has and/or is capable of negatively affecting the employment chances of the Claimant.

“An order setting aside the unlawful suspension and termination of the employment of the Claimant by the Defendant same having been done outside the laid down procedure guiding the employment relationship between the Claimant and the Defendant.

“The sum of N2,084,787.32 (Two million, being and representing the balance of the claimant’s full Six Months’ Salary from July-December, 2020, 13th month salary, One month salary in lieu of notice, money wrongly deducted from the Claimant by the Defendant as tax liability and leave encashment benefits due to the Claimant.

“Interest calculated at 21 percent per annum on the said total sum of N2, 084, 787.32 million, being and representing the balance of the claimant’s full Six (6) Months’ Salary from July-December, 2020, 13th month salary, One month salary in lieu of notice, money wrongly deducted from the Claimant by the defendant as tax liability and leave encashment benefits due to the claimant from July, 2020, till judgment is delivered in this case and thereafter interest calculated at 10 percent per annum on the judgment sum until liquidation thereof.

“The sum of N20 million, being and representing damages for the stigma, troubles, inhumane treatment, punitive and unfair and discriminatory labour practices unjustifiably meted out on the Claimant by the defendant.

“The sum of N2. 3 million, only, being and representing Legal Practitioners’ fees for legal letters and prosecution of this suit.

“An order directing the defendant to give the claimant an opportunity to resign from the defendant as against the unwarranted punitive sanction of termination which carries with it the stigma of wrongdoing or malfeasance, the claimant being innocent and having nothing to do with the frauds that led to the termination of his appointment.

“An order of Court directing the defendant to give positive written reference as it relates to the Claimant in the event that a prospective employer requests same from the defendant with respect to the Claimant, the claimant having meritoriously served the defendant for more than eight years.”

During the trial of the suit, the claimant told the court that he was employed by the defendant as a Custody Trainee on September 12, 2012 and rose to the position of Senior Custody Trainee, until his employment was terminated on December 9, 2020, when he was unceremoniously disengaged from the employ of the Company without requisite notice given to him by the Defendant.

He stated that on July 6, 2020, he was summoned, alongside other staff of the defendant to the UBA Group Head Office, Marina Lagos, by the Fraud and Forensic Investigation Department of the group for questioning, where he was officially informed that sometimes in March, April, May and June, 2020, some alleged fraudulent withdrawals were made on a certain account number 1015872219 UPCL/PENSIONS Alliance Rsa Reconciliation A/C with the Defendant. And that he was then interrogated for about two hours by fraud and forensic investigators after which he was instructed alongside four (4) other staff of the defendant to proceed to the Police Station (Lion Building) at Marina, Lagos for further questioning. And he was further questioned, made to write an extra judicial statement and eventually detained till the following day, only to be released on bail the following day, after being questioned by the Police.

The Claimant stated that on July 13, 2020, he was again summoned by the Head, Human Resources, and upon getting to the Office he was handed a letter of indefinite suspension without pay, and he calmly informed the Head, Human Resources that the account in question was not under his watch. And that few days after the letter of indefinite suspension was handed to him, he was again called by the same Head, Human Resources to come to the Office from where he was asked to report at the State Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (SCIID), Panti, Lagos State, for further investigation. He honoured the directive and went to the SCIID, Panti, Lagos, where he was once again extensively questioned by the Police, and after carefully examining the facts presented, the Police asked him to go.

The Claimant pleads further that, on the August 6, 2020, he was once again summoned to the Office by the Head, Human Resources of the Defendant and asked to proceed to Force Headquarters, Abuja for further interrogation with respect to the matter. Adding that at great expense and discomfort, he proceeded to the FCIID, Abuja and after over five (5) days of intense interrogation by the Police, he was exonerated and asked to go as he was not in any way found culpable in the alleged fraud. But only to be invited again by the defendant on September 17, 2020 to face a Disciplinary Committee (DC) set up by the firm to further investigate the alleged fraud, and he honoured the invitation and appeared before the Panel where he maintained his innocence and pleaded with the Committee to review his case.

He stated that the disciplinary Committee concluded its investigation without the firm notifying him of the outcome of the investigation. And that while he was still waiting and hoping that his case would be reviewed by the management of the Defendant, he was shocked when he was called to the Office and handed a letter of termination of his appointment on December 9, 2020 after about six (6) months of being left in the wilderness by the defendant over an offence he knows absolutely nothing about.

The Claimant further told the court that from the process flow of the defendant’s operations, he did not have any interface with the said Account Number: 1015872219 UPCL/PENSIONS Alliance Rsa Reconciliation A/c or the persons managing the said account, and therefore was not in any way involved with the said account, and could not have known what transpired in the said account. That while some of his colleagues who were not directly involved with the said account, as well as the said Reconciliation Officer to the said account were asked to resign, he was singled out and had his appointment terminated.

He stated that with the termination of his employment after investing eight years in the Defendant, it would be difficult for him to secure another appointment within the banking or pension industry in particular and the finance industry in general, and the Defendant will not give a positive reference to a would-be employer to him thus stifling his chances of getting an alternative employment to take care of himself, family and dependents.

He consequently asked the court to grant all the reliefs sought against the defendant.

But UBA Pensions Custodian Limited through its lawyer, O. Wali (SAN) leading two other lawyers, urged the court to dismiss the claimant’s suit for for want of proof.

The firm, while admitting that the claimant was her employee, however entitled to give the Claimant one (1) month notice or one month salary in lieu of notice to terminate his employment, and it rightly opted for one month salary in lieu of notice. And pleaded that the monthly salary of the claimant as at the time of his disengagement from the Defendant’s employ as N136, 842.12.

It further averred that, the Claimant who was a Relationship Manager for the Pensions Alliance Limited (PAL Pensions) on Settlement Transactions with Account No. 1015872219, Account Name: UPCL/PENSIONS Alliance RSA Reconciliation under the custody of the Defendant, the Fund Account Team usually forwards telexes of all the Real-Time Gross Settlement (an instant payment/transfer system of money and/or securities) transactions gotten from United Bank for Africa Plc to the Claimant’s Team for thorough review. Adding that part of the responsibilities of the Claimant’s Team is to identify any investments/settlements done for Pensions Alliance Limited that did not emanate from the Pension Fund Administrators (PFA) on the respective dates.

The firm told the court that, even though its share capital is N2 billion, sometime between March and June, 2020, there were fraudulent transactions in the Pensions Alliance Ltd. Account No.1015872219 to the tune of N1,911,928,957.18 billion, with the use of forged transfer instructions, purporting to emanate from the Pension Fund Administrators (PFA), and spurious email addresses: olugbenga.akinremi@ubagrroup.com and abiodun.akande@ ubaggroup.com. Adding that the fraudulent transactions arose from settlements of instructions/transactions that did not emanate from the Pension Fund Administrators (PFA). And that the claimant specifically handled genuine security offerings of Coronation Merchant Bank CP for PAL on 1st June, 2020 and at the Disciplinary Committee confirmed that he was fully aware that the Pensions Alliance Limited has never invested from Reconciliation Account.

UBA Pension stated further that, it was as a result of the significant lapses, carelessness, recklessness, heedlessness and incautiousness in the processing of the questionable instructions by the claimant and other members of his team that the frauds slipped undetected which led to the loss, and the Claimant and other persons involved were invited by the Fraud and Forensic Investigation Department of the UBA Group Head Office in Marina, Lagos in July, 2020 for questioning. And due to the unsatisfactory explanations regarding the frauds, they were requested to report to the Police Station (Lion Building) at Marina, Lagos for further questioning, and the Police after questioning them released them on bail on the same day, which was on the 6th of July, 2020.

It also stated that the Claimant was subsequently placed on suspension and a Disciplinary Committee was put in place to further investigate the matter. He was further invited by the State Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (SCIID) of the Nigerian Police, Panti, Lagos State and the Forces Headquarters, Abuja for further questioning, because the firm as a financial institution is statutorily required to notify the relevant security agencies whenever there is a case of financial fraud in the Defendant, and fully paid for the Claimant’s return air ticket, transaction fare within Lagos and Abuja as well as his hotel accommodation.

It stated further that since the claimant was unable to explain to the Disciplinary Committee the reason(s) for not spotting, stopping and/or reporting some questionable debit instructions when telexes of all the Real-Time Settlement transactions gotten from UBA Plc were forwarded to his team for thorough review, the Committee found that the Claimant and other members of his Team had neglected and/or failed to properly review the telexes forwarded to them before same were settled. Adding that even though the Disciplinary Committee concluded its investigation within one week, it had to appraise its findings and forward its report, recommendations or decision to the relevant authority within the Defendant in line with sections 3(i), 8(iii), etc. of the UBA Pensions Resources Disciplinary Process & Sanction Policy of the Defendant because the final decision rests with the Board of Directors of UBA Pensions Custodian Limited, who would require time to consider the report, recommendations or decision of the Disciplinary Committee.

It added that the Claimant was found culpable of acts of negligence, carelessness, recklessness, heedlessness and incautiousness in the performance of his duty and advised of the decision of the Disciplinary Committee as approved by the Board of Directors of the UBA Pensions Custodian Limited, before he was handed over a letter of termination of his appointment on December 5, 2020.

The firm stated that even though the Nigerian Police investigation on the matter was ongoing, its disciplinary measures were however not tied to the report on the Nigerian Police investigation or to the punishment for the crime of frauds being investigated by the Nigerian Police.

The firm stated further that the grievousness of the claimant’s offence was such that he ought to have been given a letter of dismissal, but was considerate and lenient enough to backtrack and instead gave the claimant a letter of termination of employment. Adding that, the claimant had the option of appealing against the decision of the Disciplinary Committee to the body that would review and re-appraise the entire case to see if he was unjustly sanctioned, but he failed to utilize the opportunity, and also refused to explore this internal mechanism within the firm before filing the action.

The firm upon conclusion of its defence, urged the Court to dismiss all the claims of the Claimant for want of proof.

Both parties closed their cases on …and adopted their final written addresses on …..

Justice Hamman, delivering judgment on the suit, after legally scrutinized all the parties arguments, exhibits tendered, cited legal authorities and issues raised, held that: “In the final result, the claimant’s case succeeds in part. The lone issue is resolved in favour of the Claimant, and the court hereby declares and orders as follows: “it is hereby declared that the termination of the Claimant’s employment is wrongful.

“The defendant is hereby ordered to pay the claimant the sum of N954,026.65 as the balance of his withheld salary for the month of July and the shortfalls in the payments for the months of August to November, 2020.

“The defendant is hereby ordered to pay the claimant the sum of N6, 499,964.4 calculated at the rate of N270,831.85 as salary per month in exhibit CW1Q 24 months which is equivalent of two years’ salary as general damages for the wrongful termination of the Claimant’s employment.

“The terms of this judgment shall be complied with within 30 days from today, failing which it shall attract interest at 10 percent per annum until it is completely liquidated.

“Judgment is entered accordingly. No order as to cost.”