The Zvolen District Court in Slovakia issued a long-awaited ruling on Friday, 17 March 2017, in the case of Viera Petrášová, a senior researcher and sworn expert in forestry, against her former employer, public quasi-budgetary agency National Forest Centre (Národné lesnícke centrum – NLC). The court ruled that the NLC’s 2009 decision on her dismissal was invalid, including for being discriminatory. Viera Petrášová (the “applicant”) has been represented in the proceedings pending before courts since 2009 by the NGO Citizen, Democracy and Accountability (CDA).
The decision is groundbreaking because, despite antidiscrimination legislation being in place in Slovakia since 2004, there are still precious few cases when courts have decided about discrimination against women on grounds of sex and gender. This, however, does not mean there are few women subject to discrimination, quite the contrary.
The ruling is notable for examining the discrimination against a female employee of a public research institution regarding several aspects. For example, one such interesting aspect concerns the allowance in public institutions of opportunities for employees to submit and coordinate outside projects often funded by public resources (including EU funds); in other words, an opportunity for the employees’ further career growth and, quite often, better pay. The court also comments on employers’ obligation to prevent discrimination – a very rare, yet progressive approach in Slovakia.
Commenting on the decision, Viera Petrášová says: “For me, it is very important that after so many years the court has finally started dealing with what I complained about from the very beginning – with discrimination. It cost me a lot of effort and I have gone through a lot of stressful situations, but I believe it will pay off at the end, and that it will help others facing a similar situation to seek and find justice.”
Janka Debrecéniová, a lawyer with the Citizen, Democracy and Accountability, representing Viera Petrášová in the proceedings from the beginning, adds: “We see the ruling delivered by the District Court of Zvolen as a decision which sensitively and convincingly reflects the many forms of discriminatory treatment faced daily in Slovakia by women at the hands of different types of employers, including public institutions. Even though the case of Mrs Petrášová is still far from being closed, we believe that the judgment of the Zvolen court is a signal to employers that discriminatory treatment does not pay off and that the state is capable of handling similar cases.”
The judgment is not yet final; the NLC may still file an appeal against it. Once the ruling becomes final, the court will also decide on other claims the applicant made in the proceedings, namely about wage compensation and compensation for non-pecuniary damage.
Viera Petrášová, as an NLC employee, prepared two project plans in 2008 approved by the Slovak Agricultural Payment Agency (APA). The applicant, in cooperation with her colleagues, subsequently drafted the full versions of the projects stemming from these project plans, for which the NLC was supposed to receive more than SKK 4 million (almost 140 thousand EUR) from the APA. However, the NLC never submitted these projects to the APA.
This happened shortly after a man whom Viera Petrášová had replaced (back in 1999) in the position of director general at the Agricultural Ministry’s forestry section had been appointed a NLC director general. The projects were kept back for unconvincing reasons that have never been explained to the applicant. Moreover, the NLC changed these reasons several times during the court proceedings. Interestingly enough, even though the NLC did not submit any of the projects prepared by Viera Petrášová, it did submit a similar project, prepared by her male colleague with a lower level of education and less experience in the field, to the APA.
Nevertheless, Viera Petrášová continued preparing further project proposals in order to fully cover her working capacities at the NLC. However, the NLC had no internal rules in place for the submission of project proposals, and it did not choose for implementation of any of the additional projects proposed by the applicant.
Soon afterward, the NLC management suggested amending Viera Petrášová’s employment contract, arguing she had no projects she could coordinate on her own. Through this amendment, the management sought to downgrade her pay grade and restrict her scientific and professional development as an independent research fellow. The applicant considered the proposed amendment discriminatory and refused to sign it.
Shortly afterward, the NLC underwent organisational changes under which Viera Petrášová was made redundant. She was dismissed by the NLC even though the agency’s own collective agreement stipulated that decisions to lay off redundant staff in the case of necessary organisational changes should take into account the capability and achievements of such employees. The applicant’s capability and achievements have never been challenged; she regularly ranked among the NLC’s best performers according to its annual internal assessments (carried out according to the NLC’s own evaluation criteria). Moreover, in another case involving a male NLC employee who also faced a possible wage decrease in a similar situation as that of Viera Petrášová, the NLC ultimately decided not to amend his contract and did not issue him a dismissal notice.
RULING BY THE ZVOLEN DISTRICT COURT
Already in 2012, the Zvolen District Court found the dismissal from employment of Viera Petrášová invalid for a number of reasons, but it refused to examine its invalidity from the point of view of discrimination. The Regional Court of Banská Bystrica upheld the decision in 2013. Following a 2015 decision by the Slovak Supreme Court, the Zvolen District Court was required to also examine whether Viera Petrášová’s dismissal could be found invalid for being discriminatory. In its ruling of 17 March 2017, the District Court of Zvolen finally held that the dismissal was invalid for the reasons identified in earlier decisions, but also for being discriminatory.
In its new ruling, the District Court examined the discrimination quite thoroughly and emphasised that the discriminatory treatment of Viera Petrášová by the NLC had taken several forms. For example, the court held that the applicant had been subject to direct discrimination when her projects were not submitted to the APA even though a similar project prepared by her aforementioned less-qualified male colleague was actually submitted. The circumstances under which the applicant’s projects had not been submitted to the APA were also described as harassment by the court, which is a form of discrimination and which included demeaning and humiliating the applicant and restricting her freedom of scientific research. The court noted that if the NLC had had no clear, transparent, and non-discriminatory rules for the submission of project proposals in place, this could not be to the detriment of the applicant, and that the responsibility for the absence of such rules must be borne by the NLC.
The District Court of Zvolen noted in its decision that the actual dismissal had been the climax of a number of previous discriminatory steps taken by the NLC towards the applicant as a woman, a high-profile researcher in forestry, a sector where women are scarcely seen in leading scientific and management positions – as was also the case with the NLC. The court also noted the gender-based discriminatory nature of NLC’s conduct in that the discriminatory treatment of Viera Petrášová had been initiated by its director general, a man replaced by Viera Petrášová in the position of director general of the forestry section at the Slovak Agricultural Ministry several years prior, and who alone made the decision regarding her redundancy dismissal – despite not being in any direct employment relation with her and despite the fact that, pursuant to the NLC’s applicable organisational rules, a written proposal for a redundancy dismissal of a particular employee should have been presented by other senior employees in the NLC management. However, their testimonies show they never proposed to dismiss the applicant.
Additionally, the court saw discrimination in that the provision of the collective agreement concerning decision-making on redundant staff based on their capability and achievements had been violated. The court noted that such a provision contained in the collective agreement may in principle serve for preventing discrimination, but only if the provision is indeed complied with – which did not happen in Viera Petrášová’s case. However, the court found that the obligation to adopt antidiscrimination measures had been breached by the NLC in other instances as well. For example, the NLC ignored Viera Petrášová’s complaint against discrimination previously filed in 2009, and since 2003, when the NLC lost another antidiscrimination lawsuit initiated by the applicant, no measures had been taken to prevent further discrimination.
Employee dismissed due to discrimination – The Slovak Spectator, 22. 3. 2017
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