26 Jun Abubakar Umar & Anor V National Health Insurance Authority (NHIA) Civil Appeal No. J4/1/2020 Judgment of the Supreme Court dated 24th March, 2021.
Even where it has not been pleaded as a remedy, “the courts have not hesitated in the interest of justice to [reverse] ‘…the unjust enrichment of [a] defendant through its retention of the benefit of [a] plaintiff’s services without any payment for them…’”
The Appellants claimed that they had been employed by the Respondents on 9th April, 2012, as provided in their Appointment Letters, and from that date, they received their salaries till May 2014, at which point salaries were withheld. All attempts to rectify the situation of non-payment proved futile causing them to suffer hardship and inconvenience. The Appellants commenced an action at the High Court seeking an order directing the Respondent to restore their names to its payroll and for recovery of their unpaid salaries for a stated period, among others. The Appellants were unsuccessful and appealed to the Court of Appeal which upheld the appeal in part. The Appellate Court held that the Appellants were only entitled to salaries from October 2012 to April 2014. This was because, the Appointment Letters had been back-dated by the Respondent. The Appellants actually started work in October 2012 . The Appellants further appealed to the Supreme Court.
Counsel for the Appellants argued that the Appellants rendered services to the Respondent and were employees in accordance with section 75(1) of the Labour Act, 2003 (Act 651). Further, Counsel contended that the Appellants continued working for the defendants right up till judgment in December 2016 even after removal from the pay roll, and therefore, the Appellants were entitled to be paid for that period to prevent unjust enrichment on the part of the Respondent.
The Supreme Court held that the Appellants, after assuming duty never signed any contracts of employment as required by law. Owing to the absence of an agreement, the Appellants were not employees of the Respondent.
The doctrine of quantum meruit allows compensation for services performed where there is no legally binding contract. Although the Appellants did not seek relief under the doctrine of quantum meruit, the Supreme Court held that they were entitled to their salaries from May 2014 to August 2015, as the Respondent had filed its statement of defence pursuant to the doctrine.
Insight: In the quest to do justice, the courts are more inclined to make restitution for the party which rendered services by granting the equitable remedy of quantum meruit (even where the remedy is not pleaded) against the party which was unjustly enriched through the benefits of the unpaid services.