A FORMER deputy town clerk who was branded a "gold digger" by gossips after she formed a personal relationship with a married councillor has won her claim for unfair dismissal.

An employment tribunal heard the atmosphere turned sour in the office at Barnard Castle Town Council when colleagues learned Jane Woodward had grown close to then councillor Roger Peat, whose wife Rosemary was in a care home with Alzheimers disease. Mrs Peat died last October, shortly before the hearing.

Seeing Ms Woodward going on holiday with Mr Peat while his wife was confined, and learning of gifts bought for her by him, the view took hold that Ms Woodward was manipulating and taking advantage of an older man.

Ms Woodward, who suffered from anxiety and depression, was subject of office gossip and rumours and anonymous letters, which were referred to the police.

During a six-day hearing, held remotely, the council denied her claims, contending it had fairly dismissed her on the basis that there had been an irretrievable breakdown in relationships between her and her co-workers and councillors.

In a finding of unfair dismissal released yesterday, employment Judge Seamus Sweeney said: “We have found that at the heart of this whole story lay a moral disapproval of the claimant’s relationship with Councillor Peat.”

He also upheld Ms Woodward’s complaint of disability discrimination, on the grounds the council had failed to make “reasonable adjustment” for her depression and anxiety.

The story unfolded after, sometime in 2017, Ms Woodward formed a friendship with Mr Peat, who was at the time a respected local councillor. He has since resigned.

Ms Peat did not mention to her colleagues at first how close she and Mr Peat were becoming and knowledge of the developing relationship emerged as word spread that the two had been seen together out of work.

The hearing was told the atmosphere in the office changed after the Ms Woodward’s return from holiday with Mr Peat in April 2018 and from then on “remained frosty”.

Ms Woodward’s colleagues, and some councillors, in particular Cllr Sandra Moorhouse and Cllr John Blissett, did not approve of this relationship primarily from a moral standpoint and that their attitude towards her changed, the hearing found.

The judge noted also, Ms Woodward was “impervious to her colleagues’” feelings of sensitivity with regards the relationship and did not see that others might be uneasy.

He added: “Those who knew Mr and Mrs Peat would inevitably have found that a difficult scenario.

“The 2018, the relationship had become something of an ‘elephant in the room’.”

Giving evident, Cllr Moorhouse at one point described having heard “Jane’s high heels cross the office floor “.

Judge Sweeney said his findings: “Why, we asked ourselves would Cllr Moorhouse refer to the claimant’s high heels?

“She could simply have said ‘I heard Jane walk across the office’ ... We conclude that Cllr Moorhouse referred to ‘high heels’ in a derogatory way.”

He added: “We find that Cllr Moorhouse regarded the claimant as something of a ‘femme fatale’ as regards her relationship with Cllr Peat and that she influenced others, in particular Cllr Blissett, in holding to this view.

“It was this sense of moral outrage that was to be the claimant’s ultimate undoing.

“The claimant said in in her statement: ‘my private and personal relationship with Councillor Peat is the crux of this whole case’. We agree.”

The hearing was told Ms Woodward was suspended on February 25 2019. The reasons given were “gross insubordination and a breach of confidences in terms of information passing between her and a councillor.”

She begged not to be suspended, saying she needed to come to work as she found it was what she needed for her to combat her depression and anxiety.

Ms Woodward appealed a subsequent decision to issue her with a written warning.

At the end of the appeal, Cllr Moorhouse asked the Ms Woodward whether she really wanted to return to work after all that had happened.

Judge Sweeney said: “We infer from this, and having read the discussions of the members and from the evidence as a whole that the settled intention of Cllr Moorhouse and the other councillors was that the claimant leave the employment of the respondent.

“Councillors believed that they would be able to achieve this at reasonably minimal cost. They did not wish to return the claimant to work while they stood a chance of securing her exit.”

He criticised Cllr Moorhouse for “intervening improperly”, at one point putting pressure on a mediator to start with a group session, against the wishes of Ms Woodward.

She also put pressure on a witness to change his statement and to back off from giving Ms Woodward any support, he said.

The judge dismissed a complaint of disability discrimination by way of unfavourable treatment, “because of something arising in consequence of disability" and a further complaint of harassment related to disability. A remedy hearing will be held.