French case law generally does not allow dismissals of employees based on facts related to the employees’ private life. In this respect, the suspension (or the withdrawal) of an employee’s driving license caused by the employee’s behavior outside his/her working hours does not necessarily justify the termination of his/her employment contract.
However, when the holding of a valid driving license is necessary for the performance of the employee’s duties, French case law generally considers that the dismissal of the employee is valid provided that he/she can no longer carry out his/her duties as a result of the suspension (or the withdrawal) of his/her driving license, thus creating a clear disruption to the company. In such a case however, the dismissal is not based on disciplinary reasons, but on personal reasons.
In the decision at stake, a travelling salesman had his driving license suspended as a result of a speeding violation committed on a day off while driving his company car. The particularity of this case was that his employment contract provided for automatic termination in the event of withdrawal of the employee’s driving license. As a result of the employee’s driving license suspension, the employer dismissed the employee, the dismissal letter referring expressly to the automatic termination clause provided in the employee’s contract. The employee then filed a claim before the employment court challenging his dismissal.
The Court of appeal held that the dismissal was justified insofar as the suspension of the employee’s driving license prevented him from carrying out his duties and therefore created a clear disruption to the company.
However, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of appeal. In reaching this conclusion, the judges of the Supreme Court combined two principles:
- no clause of an employment contract can provide that certain circumstances constitute per se a legitimate reason for dismissal;
- only the content of the dismissal letter may be discussed before a court.
The Supreme Court generally considers automatic termination clauses to be unenforceable and not binding on tribunals. Based on such case law, and given that the dismissal letter referred only to the clause set forth in the employee’s contract, in a very summary way and without any additional details, the Supreme Court considered that the dismissal was necessarily unfair. The dismissal letter should have provided details with respect to the circumstances of the suspension of the employee’s driving license and should have demonstrated the consequences of such suspension on the running of the business (i.e. indicating that the employee was prevented from performing his habitual duties on a normal basis).
This ruling is in line with previous decisions and provides another example of a situation in which the employer should be careful concerning the wording of a dismissal letter, regardless of the contents of the employment contract.