The owner of a Melbourne-based restaurant is considering pursuing defamation proceedings against the Fair Work Ombudsman over a press release he says damaged his reputation.
Matteo Bruno, owner of the Meatball and Wine Bar in Richmond, has been approached by lawyers in the wake of a Federal Circuit Court judgment late last month that found the Fair Work Ombudsman had caused his business harm by presenting underpayment allegations as facts in a 2017 media release.
The Ombudsman pursued Bruno over allegations his business had underpaid employees, claims that were upheld by the court in a judgment last month, which ordered his business to pay $31,320 in penalties.
But in making its decision, the court found a Fair Work Ombudsman press release, issued in August 2017, had caused adverse publicity leading to injury, which was taken into consideration as a factor mitigating the penalty.
In its initial media release regarding the underpayment allegations, the Ombudsman said the potential breaches showed a “deliberate disregard for worker’s entitlements”, but Bruno maintains the underpayments were not deliberate.
The release formed the basis of articles in a number of media publications, including The Age, Broadsheet online, Hospitality Magazine and SmartCompany. Bruno argues the media coverage caused profits from the business to decline by more than $200,000 in the following quarter.
A series of notes have since been added to the Ombudsman’s initial 2017 press release, explaining it dropped allegations that Bruno himself was involved in contraventions of the Fair Work Act.
“It is significant that the applicant [the Ombudsman] made claims of deliberate wrongdoing against Mr Matteo and the Respondent in circumstances where that allegation was challenged and that issue had not been determined by the Court,” Judge Alister McNab said in his findings.
“The matters were not reported as allegations but as a factual statement.”
The court deemed a 20% discount on the company’s penalty was appropriate after taking into account the circumstances, including Bruno’s cooperation with the Ombudsman’s investigation.
Speaking to SmartCompany this morning, Bruno says he believes the Ombudsman was trying to make an example out of him, despite the court finding he cooperated with its investigation.
“Employees were paid and apologised to … [after] we were notified of the underpayments,” he says.
“They assumed we were a big chain and wanted to get a scalp.”
He will now consider whether to take the matter further, describing the Ombudsman’s investigation as heavy handed.
“The [legal action] was a really harsh thing for them to go and do based on the fact that we had complied with every one of their request,” he says.
A Fair Work Ombudsman spokesperson referred SmartCompany to its policy guidelines, but did not respond to questions about whether it had reviewed or changed any of its processes as a result of the court ruling.