Can you discriminate against a ‘non-disabled’ employee on grounds of disability?

 So, here we are: January. Christmas has come and gone and the warm lights of December have been replaced with the wind and rain of January. Sigh. But anyway, how was your Christmas? I hope it was a time of rest and good health.

My Christmas? As usual, it was filled with random discussions around the Christmas dinner table including, as ever, conversations about weird and wonderful Employment Law cases. In particular, some of my family members were shocked to hear that a non-disabled employee can suffer disability-related discrimination. One even suggested that I make the subject into a blog when I returned to work and, me being me, I couldn’t resist such an invitation…

So what am I talking about? Well, this was the case of Chief Constable of Norfolk v Coffey which concerned a female police officer who applied for a job in another police force. The police officer had a progressive hearing condition with tinnitus which, going forward, would continue to worsen. When originally recruited for her current police force, she failed the meet the usual criteria for police recruitment due to her low level of hearing but, after the police force arranged a practical functionality test, she was passed for duty and assigned for front-line duties. There were no concerns over her performance during her time in the role.

The issues started in 2013 when she applied to transfer to a new police force. As was standard, she attended a pre-employment health assessment. The medical practitioner concluded that, whilst her hearing level was technically just outside the usual police force parameters, she performed her current role with no difficulties and a practical functionality test was recommended. However, the new police force refused to follow this recommendation and, instead, declined her request to transfer due to her hearing below the recognised standard and, rather importantly, commented that it would not be appropriate to accept a candidate outside of the recognised standard of hearing because of the risk of increasing the pool of police officers placed on restricted duties.

Providing information about sickness absence in a reference ruled as discriminatory

Mr Paul Mefful began working as a volunteer at Southwark CAB in 2000. In 2003 he was employed as a general adviser and in 2004 he was promoted to senior adviser at Merton and Lambeth CAB following a competitive selection process. In May 2004 he became a specialist services manager. In (what was then) a Legal Services Commission audit report in 2006 the LSC contract with the CAB, for which Mr Mefful was responsible, was found to be “outstanding in quality and performance”.

He was absent from work from November 2009 to January 2010 due to grief and a stress reaction after he and his partner lost a baby. In 2012 he suffered severe and constant shoulder pain as well as total hearing loss in one ear, tinnitus and vertigo. An employment tribunal determined that these conditions meant that he was suffering from a disability within the meaning set out in the Equality Act 2010. He took 63 days off work between April and July 2012. In August of the same year he was made redundant.

Mr Mefful brought claims of unfair dismissal (upheld) and disability discrimination (continuing) but the judgment I am reporting here concerns separate proceedings relating to the provision of a reference by the CAB to a prospective employer. At the time the CAB had guidance concerning the provision of a reference which included the following:
“Any reference provided by the Bureau for an employee should be well researched and avoid unfounded opinions. If negative, it should not refer to matters not previously raised directly with the employee. If asked to speculate on suitability, it should be cautious and where necessary use a disclaimer. It should aim to offer a balanced view without being too glowing or too damning unless wholly merited.”
In May 2015 Mr Mefful applied for the post of Welfare Benefits Advisor at One Housing Group Limited. He was interviewed on 3 June and offered the post on 4 June, subject to a satisfactory reference. He was contacted by One Housing on 12 June because they wanted him to commence employment as soon as possible. At the time Mr Mefful was engaged in his separate employment tribunal claim and it turned out that the provision of the reference had been stalled because, in the words of Ms Harris, a former Chair of Trustees and a member of the strategy group, in an email sent to a colleague on 26 June, she described the reference application as being “very problematic”. She noted that “…the way that he has conducted himself in the [unfair dismissal and disability discrimination] litigation has been totally dishonest”.

Although denied by each of them when giving evidence, the tribunal found that Ms Harris and Ms James, CEO of the CAB, had consulted in detail about the reference. It was eventually completed by Ms James on 29 June. Sickness absences had been filled out in the form. In answer to a question about whether the CAB would re-employ Mr Mefful, the answer given was “no”.

Disability Discrimination: Adjustments for candidate with Asperger’s Syndrome

In the recent case of Government Legal Services v Brookes UKEAT/0302/16, the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) upheld the decision of the Employment Tribunal (ET) that requiring a job applicant with Asperger’s to take a multiple-choice test as part of the recruitment process, amounted to indirect discrimination.

Background

The facts of the case were that the Government Legal Service (GLS) was recruiting lawyers in what the EAT later called “a fiendishly competitive recruitment process”. Applicants would be required to complete and pass a multiple choice ‘Situational Judgment Test’ (SJT), in order to be invited for interview.

Prior to commencing the test the Claimant, Ms Brookes, contacted the GLS and asked if adjustments could be made due to her Asperger’s – in particular, she asked if she could give her answers in a short narrative format rather than multiple choice so that she was not placed at a disadvantage.

Unfortunately, the GLS advised her that an alternative test format was not available, however did state that additional time allowances might be permitted for tests taken at a later stage following the successful completion of the entry tests.  The Claimant therefore completed the SJT in its existing format and failed, albeit she scored just 2 points under the pass mark required.

Ms Brookes brought claims of indirect disability discrimination and failure to make reasonable adjustments at the ET, arguing that the multiple-choice format of the test placed her at a disadvantage in comparison to other candidates who did not suffer from Asperger’s.  She further claimed that there could be no justification for this, and no reasonable adjustments had been made to the process.

The decisions

When does it become fair to dismiss an employee for long term sickness absence?

We are often asked what is the best approach to dealing with an employee who has been on extended sick leave. In general, it is necessary to establish that the employee is not going to be fit to return to work (on a full or partial basis) for the foreseeable future. Without this there is the risk that the employee could contend that they were about to return when they were dismissed or there could be a sudden improvement in condition which might curtail the expected absence. Of course, that assessment requires medical evidence so the process normally involves engaging the services of an occupational health consultant. Employers also need to be aware of potential disability issues.

These issues were recently considered by the Court of Appeal in O’Brien -v- Bolton St Catherine’s Academy. Ms O’Brien commenced work with the employer as an ICT teacher in 2005. In 2011 she was assaulted by a pupil. She did not suffer severe physical injuries but she was very shaken. On her return to work she was concerned that the school was not taking adequate steps to protect her. In particular she was dissatisfied by a refusal to reinstate a policy under which pupils who assaulted staff were automatically excluded.

In December 2011 she went off sick with a diagnosis of stress at work. After more than a year off work she was dismissed on 31 January 2013 on the ground of medical incapacity. her appeal against the decision to dismiss was rejected. Ms O’Brien presented a complaint of unfair dismissal to an employment tribunal. She also claimed that her illness constituted a disability and that she was either dismissed in circumstances giving rise to direct disability discrimination or that she suffered unfavourable treatment on account of her disability. She also claimed wrongful dismissal (breach of contract) because the school paid her in lieu of notice when it was not entitled to do so, as well as claiming arrears of holiday pay.

Her claims for automatic unfair dismissal and direct discrimination failed, as did the claim for holiday pay. However, she was found to have been unfairly dismissed and subjected to less favourable treatment on account of her disability. There was also a finding of wrongful dismissal.

In June 2015 the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) found in favour of the school (save in respect of the relatively minor claim for wrongful dismissal). Ms O’Brien appealed to the Court of Appeal and judgment was handed down on 15 March 2017. Lord Justice Underhill considered the relevant law. He noted that evidence had been presented on behalf of Ms O’Brien at the hearing of the initial appeal against dismissal indicating that, according to an associate psychologist, there was, as at February 2013, a diagnosis of mild depression and severe anxiety. There was also a reference to post traumatic stress disorder but it was unclear whether this was in fact diagnosed. She contended that she was fit to return to work. In its decision on appeal the school determined that Ms O’Brien was not fit to return to work because her condition had not been fully treated and accepted that she was disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.

EAT Judgment: There can be no disability-related harassment claim without first establishing the disability

In the recent case of Peninsula Business Service Ltd v Baker, the Claimant had advised his manager that he had dyslexia and had also provided a psychologist’s report confirming the diagnosis.

The Employer’s occupational health provider prepared a report confirming that the Claimant was likely to be considered disabled and recommended reasonable adjustments, however the Claimant’s supervisor had reservations about this and thought that the Claimant could have engineered the report in his favour.

The Employer subsequently arranged for a private company to carry out covert surveillance of the Claimant, the reason for this being that they suspected that he was carrying out work for a second Employer. The surveillance report did not substantiate the Employer’s suspicions, however it did show that the Claimant was not devoting all of his time to his work. Disciplinary proceedings were commenced and a copy of the surveillance report was sent to the Claimant during these proceedings, despite not showing that he was engaged in any fraudulent conduct.

The Claimant brought claims at the Employment Tribunal, claiming that the surveillance was harassment (unwanted conduct relating to his disability) and also victimisation as the disclosures he had made about his disability were ‘protected acts’.

The Tribunal found that the surveillance could not be deemed to be harassment as the Claimant did not know about it at the time, however later telling him about it for disciplinary purposes was harassment. Furthermore the Claimant’s reliance on his asserted disability was the reason for the surveillance, so the conduct did relate to his disability. The Employer arranging the surveillance was also victimisation – as the Claimant’s performance appraisals had always been positive the surveillance could only have been triggered by suspicions about his disability.

The EAT allowed the appeal.

Can type 2 diabetes amount to a protected disability?

This is the question that was asked in the case of Taylor v Ladbrokes Betting and Gaming Limited, considered by his Honour Judge Hand QC in the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

Type 2 diabetes has been described as “the fastest growing health threat of our times and an urgent public health issue”. According to the latest statistics (November 2016) some 3.6 million people in the UK have been diagnosed as having diabetes and it is estimated that a further 1 million have the condition but have not yet been diagnosed. That equates to 14% of the working population. The question is therefore of considerable importance to employers, bearing in mind the possibility of claims and compensation for discrimination and the duty to make reasonable adjustments.

Mr Taylor was dismissed from his employment in November 2013 in the grounds of “incapacity or misconduct”. He submitted claims for unfair dismissal and unlawful disability discrimination, the latter covering the period from November 2012 to November 2013.

As most readers will be aware, according to the Equality Act 2010 a person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment which “has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on [that person’s] ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. Disability can also be established in cases where there is not a substantial adverse effect but the condition is progressive.

At the employment tribunal hearing Employment Judge Gaskell had no difficulty in accepting that type 2 diabetes involves an inevitably long-term effect. However, he was concerned about whether or not it had a substantial effect on the individual. It was noted that the condition was controlled by medication, principally intended to prevent progression to type 1 diabetes. The medical evidence also indicated that the condition could be controlled by choice of lifestyle, diet and exercise.

Is a district judge entitled to whistleblower protection as a worker?

The traditional perception of a judicial appointment is that it brings with it generous terms of employment as well as very valuable pension arrangements on retirement.

While that might have been the case for many years, it is most certainly not the current position and senior judges have expressed concern about the impact on morale and recruitment. Judges at all levels are being required to deal with increased workloads, archaic IT and the challenges presented by a large increase in the number of unrepresented parties, as a result of severe restrictions on the availability of Legal Aid. If that were not enough much higher small claims limits, below which most legal costs are not recoverable, have priced many people out of being able to afford professional legal representation so cases are less well prepared and the guiding hand of a professional who might advise terms for settlement is absent.

While recent decisions seem to have applied a wide interpretation to what working terms are sufficient to establish employment rights as a worker (for example see last month’s Uber case), the opposite is the case as far as district judges are concerned. In Gilham v Ministry of Justice the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) was asked to consider whether, in addition to being an office holder, District Judge Gilham was also a worker and therefore entitled to protection from whistleblowing.

I will not repeat what is required in law to be considered as a worker because I dealt with this last month when reporting the Uber case. In the employment tribunal the judge found that:

District judges are appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor, are paid a salary as determined by the Lord Chancellor (which may be increased but not reduced) and are assigned to areas (circuits) by the Lord Chief Justice.
District judges hold office to the age of 70. They can only be removed for misbehaviour or inability to perform their duties (the latter only with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice).
Their judicial role, functions and authority are prescribed by statute and rules of procedure made under statutory authority.
Their terms of service are set out in memoranda issued by the Lord Chief Justice from time to time.
The memoranda cover such matters as allocation of work, deployment, wellbeing and training ad general advice and direction.

The Lord Chief Justice therefore has responsibility for and control over the activities of district judges.

Ms Gilham was appointed as a salaried district judge in January 2006. She was assigned to the Crewe County Court and subsequently sat at Warrington County Court. The offer of appointment letter referred to “terms of service” but there was nothing to indicate the creation of a contract or which referred to employment.

Taking recruitment a step too far!

Recruitment firm ‘Matching Models’ has recently come under fire for posting a job advertisement requesting that applicants are ‘attractive women’ only and have even specified what bra size the successful applicant should be.

The advertisement in question specified that applicants for a PA position should have “a classic look, brown long hair with b-c cup”. It went on to state that the job would be based in the countryside and that “a lady with no commitments would seem to match our client expectations”. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) called the advertisement “appalling, unlawful and demeaning to women”. Women’s rights campaigners have also criticised the firm with Sam Smeathers (Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society) stating:

It is extraordinary that they are taking this approach and almost certainly falls foul of equality legislation. If we ever wonder why the battle for gender equality hasn’t been won, this is a timely reminder.

Matching Models is also recruiting a "sexy female driver" to drive a Porsche Cayenne two days a week for between £40,000 and £50,000-a-year for a Knightsbridge-based businessman and polo team owner.

It’s not enough to have fair procedures: they must be applied fairly

In Buchanan v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis the Employment Appeal Tribunal considered the case of a serving police officer who was disabled as the result of a serious motor bike accident while on duty (the bike’s brakes failed). The accident happened in late 2012 when he was responding to an emergency call. Following the accident he was diagnosed with serious PTSD and did not return to work. By April 2013 he was recognised as a disabled person within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. By May 2013 the employer knew or could reasonably have been expected to know that he was disabled and during that month he was placed on the employer’s rather unfortunately named “Unsatisfactory Performance Procedure” (UPP).

The Procedure is derived from provisions in the Police (Performance) Regulations 2012. The Regulations define unsatisfactory performance as “an inability or failure of a police officer to perform the duties of the role or rank he is undertaking to a satisfactory standard or level”. The Procedure has three stages. Under the first, a line manager may require an officer to attend a stage one meeting to discuss performance or attendance. Following such a meeting an improvement notice may be issued. Alternatively the meeting may be adjourned or postponed so that the process does not have to proceed to the next stage.

The second stage is invoked if there has not been a sufficient improvement and involves a mandatory meeting. If a notice is issued then it must be a “final improvement notice”. The third stage (which was not reached in Mr Buchanan’s case) also involves a mandatory meeting, this time before a panel and witnesses may be called.

Sitting in the Employment Appeal Tribunal, His Honour Judge David Richardson noted that the Regulations make no express provisions relating to disability, but the Procedure includes plenty of opportunities for allowances or adjustments for disability to be made (for example by exercising the discretion not to call a first stage meeting). However, although the Procedure could be made to work in the case of a disabled officer, the question of disability would have to be addressed carefully by management in order to comply with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010. Judge Richardson observed that what was really required for an informed decision to be made in respect of disabled employees was medical evidence concerning the prospect of an officer returning to work and, if so, in what capacity, as well as opportunities for consultation with the officer about available options.

In Mr Buchanan’s case he was told on 21 August that he had to return to work on 9 September or face “UPP and all that it entails”.

What are the likely implications of Brexit on UK Employment Law/HR practices?

Employers may not be aware that much of the current legislation in place to protect employee rights actually derives from the European Union – for example, working time regulations, rights of the employees on a business transfer (TUPE) and family leave rights to name but a few. Indeed some Politicians for the ‘Leave Campaign’ will no doubt have argued that such laws were inhibitive to British businesses and produced too many rules and regulations having a negative effect on both time and profits.

What is likely to happen?

In reality it is doubtful that the UK Government would look to repeal any employment law which implements minimum EU requirements, the reason being that many of these laws simply complement existing UK law (equal pay rights for example). In addition, much of our existing employment law simply reflects good/acceptable practice in business (or indeed life generally!) such as the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of sex, age, disability etc. Furthermore some UK Laws actually go above and beyond the minimum requirements of EU legislation – in respect of holidays for example, the EU Working Time Directive 2003/88/EC only requires EU Member States to provide for a minimum of 20 days’ annual leave for employees, whilst the UK statutory minimum leave entitlement is actually 28 days inclusive of normal bank and public holidays.

As a final point it is worth noting that despite a (potential) Brexit, the UK will still need to maintain strong trading relations with Europe. If the UK is a member of the EEA (European Economic Area) it would be required to remain subject to many aspects of EU employment law.

In light of the above, whilst in my view the majority of employment law legislation will not be repealed or significantly changed, the UK Government may look to alter some employment law that UK businesses have struggled with. The following are areas that may be most susceptible to change: