JP Morgan questions Employment Court jurisdiction over stoush with former NZ CEO

Robert Lewis' lawyer Kensington Swan partner Michael O'Brien

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The Court of Appeal has heard that the Employment Court has no jurisdiction over a settlement agreement between JP Morgan Chase and its former New Zealand boss, in the latest iteration of a long-running employment dispute.

Robert Lewis is seeking $170,000 in damages and lost income as well as a declaration his employment agreement with the international bank was breached. Mr Lewis claims that, having left JP Morgan Chase, he applied for a job at Westpac in 2010 only to have his former employer deny he had been its local chief.

JP Morgan is in the Court of Appeal hearing before Justice Lynton Stevens, Justice Christine French and Justice Mark Cooper, having failed last year to convince Employment Court Chief Justice Graeme Colgan to strike out Mr Lewis' claim against the bank.

Mr Lewis has been in dispute with the bank since September 2010, when he first raised personal grievances alleging he had been unjustifiably disadvantaged in his employment. In March 2010, shortly before Mr Lewis left the bank the two reached a deal which JP Morgan says settled his claims against the bank, and outlined his exit from the bank. Mr Lewis is arguing the agreement was an amendment to his employment contract.

In October 2012, the Employment Relations Authority rejected Mr Lewis's complaint over JP Morgan breaching the agreement, and Lewis subsequently made a claim against the bank at the Employment Court. JP Morgan, represented by Rob Towner of Bell Gully, argued today that the 2010 agreement was not a variation to the employment contract and did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Employment Court.

Of particular importance to Mr Lewis' argument is that the agreement, made the day before his termination date at the bank, included the clause that neither party would make "any disparaging comment" about the other. Appearing for Mr Lewis, Michael O'Brien, of Kensington Swan Lawyers, argued that because the agreement was signed before Lewis's termination date, it was a variation to the employment agreement, and denying Lewis was chief executive to a possible future employer was effectively a disparaging comment.

Justice France countered that "subject to defamation laws, an employee or employer are entitled to bag the other,"  although Mr O'Brien argued that "bagging" was quite different to denying former employment.

Lewis became chief executive of the local arm of the bank in 2008, when the Reserve Bank required a chief executive of a bank be resident in the country.

Mr O'Brien said the Employment Relations Authority would not entertain Mr Lewis claim because it had already considered the issue and had said a settlement agreement was not in its jurisdiction. The judges today said that if Mr Lewis was relying on the settlement agreement, rather than the 2008 contract which documents him as chief executive, the authority may have had jurisdiction.

The hearing continues.

(BusinessDesk)


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