ABC staffer loses High Court bullying case
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ABC staffer loses High Court bullying case

A former ABC staffer's claim for workers' compensation over alleged bullying at the broadcaster has been knocked back by the High Court in a case with big implications for public sector workplace harassment claims.

The case has been sent back to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to consider whether the broadcaster was out of line when it did not award a job to producer Peta Martin in 2012, who wanted the position so she could move away from her manager, who she said was bullying her.

The case revolves around a familiar legal battleground in the public sector harassment and compensation cases: the vexed question of whether an employer's conduct towards a worker was "reasonable administrative action".

Ms Martin claimed she had been subjected to a "toxic atmosphere" in the broadcaster's Bureau in Renmark in South Australia's Riverland between 2010 and 2012 including being yelled at, ignored, told her work was "not good enough" and subjected to "passive aggressive" behaviour.

Her manager at the time, Bruce Mellett, denied mistreating the young producer and provided evidence of the ABC's concern that Ms Martin was underperforming in her job and that he tried to help improve her performance.

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An internal ABC investigation later found no issue with Mr Mellett's behaviour.

Ms Martin said her breaking point came when her application for cross-media reporter's job, which she saw as an avenue to get away from working with her boss, was turned down by a selection panel that included Mr Mellett.

Ms Martin went off work and was diagnosed with an "adjustment disorder".

When her claim for workers' compensation was rejected by federal workplace insurer Comcare, Ms Martin appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which overturned the insurer's decision.

The tribunal found Ms Martin's illness was caused by the young producer's employment with the ABC, as the decision not to give Ms Martin the job was not "rea­sonable administrative action taken in a reasonable manner".

Ms Martin lost a subsequent Federal Court appeal by the Commonwealth and then appealed again and won, in a split decision of a full bench of the Federal Court, with Comcare then taking the case to the nation's highest court.

The five judges of the High Court found this week that the bench of the Federal Court had "erred" by ruling that a "common sense notion" of the cause of Ms Martin's illness when the law: The Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, requires no such test to be applied.

The case has been sent back the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to determine, again, if the decision not to hire Ms Martin for the cross media job was "taken in a reasonable manner".

Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age

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