Ambulance worker fired after 'standing naked in front of colleague' awarded $37k compo

Kirsty Wynn, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 29 Jul 2021, 7:48am
Michael Bolton was employed as a team leader at the Wellington Free Ambulance until his dismissal. (Photo / Supplied)
Michael Bolton was employed as a team leader at the Wellington Free Ambulance until his dismissal. (Photo / Supplied)

Ambulance worker fired after 'standing naked in front of colleague' awarded $37k compo

Kirsty Wynn, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 29 Jul 2021, 7:48am

An ambulance worker fired after he was accused of standing naked in front of and trying to kiss a colleague on a fishing trip outside work hours has been awarded more than $37,000.

Wellington Free Ambulance team leader Michael Bolton went to the Employment Relations Authority claiming his dismissal was unjustified.

His dismissal on August 30, 2018, came after a colleague complained he had sexually harassed and assaulted her on a day out on Bolton's boat.

Bolton, a keen boatie, told the ERA he had invited the woman and a group of friends out on his boat to go fishing.

The trip was arranged for November 18, 2017, but the other invited guests couldn't make it. Bolton said he called the woman to cancel the trip but "her reaction persuaded him to change his mind and avoid disappointing her."

The pair had success catching fish and then on the return to land the woman spotted a wetsuit and asked Bolton if they could get some paua as a family member liked it.

The woman alleged that Bolton was naked and changing into his wetsuit, and she was stripped to her underwear. She said as Bolton was changing he tried to kiss
her and pressed himself against her.

Bolton admits he was naked and she was partially naked but said there was no sexual assault.

He told the ERA: "I pulled up to a good spot and started getting into the wetsuit in
[the] stern of the boat. I was unable to get into my wetsuit in the cabin. (The colleague)
was looking away at this point. At one point she turned around and I
was half changed."

Bolton said the woman also started to get changed, not using the cabin.

The wind picked up and the dive for paua was abandoned.

Bolton said at no point did he "look or comment, did not try and kiss her".

The pair returned to shore and the colleague invited him to her home where they filleted the fish and had a hot drink.

The next day the woman sent a text containing a photo of a meal she had prepared
using the fish.

Bolton said there was no mention of an incident on the boat.

But a text on November 22 raised the incident with the woman, saying she was upset that Bolton had "hugged and kissed me whilst naked on the boat."

It went on to advise that she now felt nervous about being near Bolton and didn't want to return to work because it was "all too much".

Bolton replied and said: "I am so sorry. I let you down on Saturday and I have no excuse. I am not a good person. But please come back to work, talk to me. I care
about our friendship. Sorry Sorry Sorry."

A second text from Bolton encouraged the woman's return to work.

Bolton told the ERA he regretted the responses. He said they were not an admission of wrongdoing, as others might now perceive them, but an attempt to calm the situation.

Further texts followed with the woman saying that what Bolton did was
serious but she would forgive and come to trust him again in time.

She said: "We all make mistakes and learn from them."

The woman said she still needed time to heal and recover before returning to work before suggesting the possibility of some sort of mediated catch-up in order to repair the friendship.

Bolton said his hasty response had the appearance of acceptance of something that didn't happen.

The Wellington Free Ambulance became aware of the matter after the woman confided in a colleague that she had been sexually assaulted and wasn't comfortable working with Bolton.

She had been off work since the day out boating but had told work it was because she had gastroenteritis.

Bolton had no idea of WFA's concerns until March 5 when he received a
telephone call from his line manager asking the two meet urgently.

He was handed a letter to advise he was to attend a disciplinary meeting and told why.

Matters progressed from there with numerous interactions between the parties
and their representatives. Bolton said in one meeting the woman gave a view of events that materially contradicted her earlier statements.

She also said "it had all turned to custard and all blown out of proportion" and said she never wanted the process, never wanted to say anything, and never wanted Bolton to get into trouble.

Despite this, the process continued and Bolton was dismissed for misconduct.

The ERA said there were issues with the WFA's handling of the case. The largest was the extent of the inquiry into what actually happened on the boat.

Evidence showed there were inconsistencies in the woman's recital of events.

Other issues included Bolton not being provided with all of the information the WFA had, and also the indication of predetermination with the revelation the woman was told "If you say it happened we will believe you it happened."

The ERA found WFA's investigation into whether Bolton was guilty of sexual harassment was "far from complete" and as a result less than safe.

It found WFA had failed to take all reasonable steps to obtain relevant information and test major discrepancies.

It found Bolton had been unjustifiably dismissed.

Bolton applied for reinstatement, lost wages, and hurt and humiliation.

The ERA said reinstatement was not an option as Bolton himself said the trust had been lost.

The ERA agreed Bolton's dismissal had been life-changing and had a major impact on his sleep and health.

He had become withdrawn and avoided things he enjoyed such as social activities. The dismissal had placed a strain on Bolton's relationship with his wife.

The ERA awarded Bolton $17,233.92 in lost wages and $20,000 for hurt and humiliation.