In its ruling no. 183 filed on 22 July 2022, the Constitutional Court called on Parliament to amend Art. 9 of Italian Legislative Decree 23/2015 which covered the system of protection for cases of unlawful dismissal in companies with less than 15 employees.
The issue raised
The Rome Court of First Instance, acting as employment tribunal, by order of 26 February 2021, raised issues of constitutional legitimacy concerning Art. 9, paragraph 1, of Legislative Decree no. 23/2015 which covered the system of protection for cases of unlawful dismissal in companies with less than 15 employees. The provision was censured only in the part where it states “where the employer does not reach the size requirements set out in Article 18, paragraphs 8 and 9, of Law no. 300 of 1970, … the allowances and the amount under Article 3, paragraph 1, … is halved and cannot exceed the limit of six months’ salary.”
The Court ruling on an appeal brought by a worker dismissed for objective justified reason by an employer that did not reach the threshold of 15 employees, claimed that the existence of the justified reason had not been demonstrated. The Court found that the worker’s indemnity is to be identified “in the narrow range between the minimum of three and the maximum of six months’ pay.” This would be unsuitable “to meet the adequacy requirement and guarantee the recognition of a bespoke compensation.”
The Court argued that the provision was contrary to Articles 3, paragraph 1), 4, 35, paragraph 1) and 117, paragraph 1) of the Constitution, the latter in relation to Art. 24 of the European Social Charter. In its opinion, the distinction between protections based on the employer’s employment requirements is based “on an element that is external to the employment relationship.” Protecting the right to work, which would limit the employer’s power of termination, could be entrusted to a monetary mechanism, provided that the overall adequacy of the compensation, under the Article 24 of the European Social Charter.
The Court believed that “such a small compensation“, not exceeding six months’ salary and without “the alternative of re-hiring“, did not adequately balance any conflicting interests. Art. 24 of the European Social Charter requires fair compensation or appropriate redress in cases of dismissal without a valid reason. This effectively prohibits any predetermined maximum limit, which separates the compensation from the damage suffered and is not sufficiently dissuasive.
The Court of First Instance observed that the “compensatory function” and the “deterrent effectiveness of compensation protection” would be compromised (…) by an indemnity “falling within a range of between three- and six-months’ salary”, which would represent “an almost uniform form of protection” and would end up attributing sole importance to “the number of employees.” This would be a “negligible criterion in the current economic situation”, which would not allow any adjustment of the amount to the specific case and, particularly, the “breach seriousness”, to the more significant criterion of the company size, linked to the “financial data obtainable from financial statements.”
The Constitutional Court’s ruling
The Constitutional Court stated that the referral by the Court of Rome concerning the compensation under Art. 9 of Italian Legislative Decree 23/2015 was inadmissible for unlawful objective justified reason dismissals in companies with less than 15 employees.
However, it recognised that the framework outlined in Law no. 23/2015 profoundly changed from that analysed by its most recent rulings.
In the Constitutional Court’s opinion, reinstatement was limited within peremptory cases for employers, and the company size was not a distinguishing criterion between applying the more effective protection and granting a pecuniary compensation.
In the Constitutional Court’s opinion, when a system hinges on financial protection, the situation of small companies cannot justify a disproportionate sacrifice of the worker’s right to obtain adequate compensation for the prejudice suffered. The narrow gap between a minimum of three and a maximum of six months’ salary “defeats the need to adjust the amount to each case, to provide adequate compensation and effective deterrence, which considers the relevant criteria set out in the rulings of this Court and contributes to configure the dismissal as a last resort.”
The Constitutional Court pointed out that technological evolution and production process transformations meant that a small number of employees could be matched by significant capital investments and business volume. The criterion focusing only on the number of employees does not meet the requirement of not burdening with disproportionate costs production and organisational realities which are unable to sustain them. The Court stated that the uniform and closed limit of six months’ salary refers to various activities with the number of workers employed as a shared element, which has no significant value per se.
In conclusion, the Court acknowledged “the existence of the damage reported by the referring party (alias the Court of Rome).” It emphasised “the need for the legal system to provide appropriate remedies for unlawful dismissals by employers who have the number of employees as a shared element.”
However, this damage cannot be remedied by the Court, since it is “within the legislature’s overriding discretion to choose the most appropriate means to achieve a constitutionally necessary end, as part of “legislation of essential importance” (…), because of its connection with worker rights, a choice which projects its effects on the economic system.”
In concluding, the Court declared that it could not refrain “from pointing out that a further continuation of legislative inertia would not be tolerable and would induce the Court, if it were again called upon to do so, to provide directly, despite the difficulties described here (…).”
This is a clear invitation to the legislature to revise Art. 9 of Italian Legislative Decree 23/2015, failing which the Constitutional court will be forced to intervene.
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