Bad handwriting – dismissal invalid?

The problem

Bad handwriting – a problem that is of little importance in times of computers, smartphones, etc. However letters of dismissal may not be sent via mail but have to be signed by hand; therefore even in our modern times, bad handwriting can affect the invalidity of a such a notice and thus lead to a defeat in court.

The plaintiff, an employee of the Berlin-Schönefeld airport , filed a lawsuit against her dismissal. This dismissal was based on her numerous absences due to illness. First, she argued, that her absence was not so severe as to justify the dismissal. Second, she claimed, the signature on the letter of termination was completely illegible. Therefore she could not identify who had signed it. As no power of attorney had been added to the letter, she could not have been sure whether the person who signed the letter was even entitled to dismiss her. Immediately after receiving the letter of termination she therefore told her employer that she rejected this legal transaction according to Sec. 174 German Civil Code (§ 174 BGB).

The Regional Labour Court Berlin-Brandenburg had then to decide whether the dismissal was valid, especially with regard to the question whether the rejection was legitimate (July, 20 2019, docket-number: 10 Sa 81/19).

The decision

In the end the court ruled in favour of the plaintiff, as her employer could not sufficiently elaborate why her absence due to illness was no longer sustainable for the company.

However the court’s explanations on the rejection of the dismissal based on the bad handwriting are of greater practical importance. It argued that Sec. 174 Civil Code would only be applicable in cases in which the recipient of a letter of intent did not know whether the signatory had the power of attorney to act for the person or company to be bound by the letter.

In the underlying case, the signatory, who was the personnel manager of the plaintiff, had power of attorney. As this was reported on the notice board in the company, the plaintiff knew that the signatory was authorised to terminate the contract.

The court then argued, Sec. 174 Civil Code – on the other hand – did not provide protection in cases in which the signatory could not be identified because of his or her bad handwriting. It referred to a verdict of the Federal Labour Court (September, 20 2006, docket-number: 6 AZR 82/06).

According to the court, any declaration of intent may involve uncertainties as to the identity of the signatory, not only in cases where a legal representative acted for someone else. If one were to apply Sec. 174 Civil Code to the underlying case, one would treat cases in which the representative had written illegibly differently than cases in which the entitled person himself had signed illegibly. This contradiction would not correspond to the sense of the law.

The impact

The court clears a legal uncertainty in favour of the signatory of letters of intent. Therefore employers do not have to specifically check whether their signature can be read. Nevertheless it is to be recommended to do so, as this may help to avoid legal disputes.