Former President’s PRO wins €14,300 in breach of contract appeal

Office of Prime Minister ordered to pay €14,300 to former President’s PRO for breach of contract, on appeal

Marica Mizzi
Marica Mizzi

Updated at 13:30 on Thursday with OPM clarification

The Court of Appeal has overturned a judge’s decision not to uphold a claim for unpaid terminal benefits, instead awarding €14,398 to a former President’s communications coordinator whose employment had been terminated when the President’s term ended.

In 2014, President George Abela’s former communications coordinator, TV presenter Marika Mizzi, had filed a court case citing a clause in her contract which stated that she was entitled to an undisclosed sum of money “in the exceptional event that the employment is terminated.”

Mizzi took the Prime Minister and his Principal Permanent Secretary, Mario Cutajar, to court when this sum was not paid out.

Mizzi had claimed that at the end of Abela's presidency, she had been corresponding with the Office of the Prime Minister about the issue and had been variously told that the precise amount was being calculated or that she would be receiving her dues.

Three months later, in June 2014, she had filed a judicial letter, calling on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Mario Cutajar, his Principal Permanent Secretary, to pay her terminal benefits after she was informed by the OPM that no monies were due to her and that her interpretation of the clause was incorrect.

The First Hall of the Civil Court had dismissed her claim with costs, in a judgment handed down in September 2016, with Mr. Justice Lawrence Mintoff ruling that the clause speaking of “in the event of termination of contract due to a change of the President” did not apply because her contract had not been terminated due to the change in President, but simply because of the expiration of his term of office.

This interpretation was not shared by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti and judges Joseph R. Micallef and Tonio Mallia, in their decision on the appeal. They ruled that the wording of the clause did not indicate that it was limited to a “premature or untimely” change of President.

“Therefore, once that no such qualification was added, the condition of the change in President also naturally includes the ending of that appointment at the end of the term envisaged in the Constitution.”

The judges also noted that the clause had been added to the contract despite it being of a definite duration. Mizzi’s contract had been renewed several times, without the clause being triggered, observed the court, ruling that, therefore it was clear that the termination benefits under that clause went beyond what was normally associated with fixed-term contracts.

“By the same measure, had the appellant’s contract of engagement come to an end the day after the President’s term finished, the other parties would not have opposed her request to be given her terminal benefits under the agreement,” pointed out the judges.

The court also observed that nowhere in the testimony of the former President did it emerge that the benefits be paid out only if the contract was terminated prematurely.

Edgar Galea Curmi, the former head of the Prime Minister’s secretariat, had testified in the case, giving an insight into the intention behind the drafting of the relevant contract, noted the court, which observed that this insight led it to recognise that the will of the parties on that contract had been “as specific as it was unequivocal” and which matched the expectations of the appellant.

Finding Mizzi’s claim to be worthy of being upheld, the court ordered that the sum due under the contract be revised to €14,398.20, ordering the Prime Minister and Permanent Secretary at the OPM to pay that sum to Mizzi. Costs were to be shared equally between the parties.

OPM clarification

"Without going into the merits of the particular court ruling, it should be stated that Principal Permanent Secretary Mr Mario Cutajar was never called as a witness in this case," the Office of the Prime Minister said in a statement.

"Furthermore this particular case was never referred to him neither by the person in question nor by the relevant department which processed her contract of work. Mr Cutajar became aware of the case when the judgement was handed down," OPM said.