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.

Will the abolition of Employment Tribunal fees result in ‘old’ 2013-2017 cases being permitted in Tribunal?

Employment Tribunal fees are illegal. This was declared on 26th July 2017 by the Supreme Court in R (on the application of Unison) v Lord Chancellor. Put simply, from that day onwards, Employment Tribunals completely scrapped both issue fees (the fee for submitting a claim form to Tribunal) and the hearing fee (the fee incurred 3 weeks before a final hearing date) due to their illegality.

Unfortunately, however, it’s not that simple. This is because tribunal fees were ruled to be ‘unlawful’. This means that all previously obtained Tribunal fees from the introduction of the fees in 2013 onwards were illegally obtained and must be paid back. Now, whilst that sounds simple, in reality, it’s far from it.

Why? Well, to start with, employees bringing group actions through one main claimant paid a combined fee. So, how do you handle returning a split fee to each applicant (particularly in situations where some settled and others continued to final hearing)? Also, many COT3 (ACAS brokered) agreements (the legal document by which parties agree to settle claims) provided for employers to repay the equivalent of the employee’s tribunal fees to the employee on top of their separate settlement amounts; do those employers now have the right to claim that portion back from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) upon simply producing the relevant paperwork?

The only comment from HMCTS so far is that a system for reimbursing fees will be announced soon, hopefully by September. Until that date, there is uncertainty as to what will happen.

The biggest question, however, is what happens to the claims of employees who would have brought a claim but who were put off by the tribunal fees. It is undeniable that thousands of employees acted in this way – in this case the statistics don’t lie, namely that there was an appropriate 70% drop in Tribunal claims following the introducton of tribunal fees.

Usually, employees have a three month time limit in which to contact ACAS and then, allowing for time spent during ACAS Early Conciliation, issue a claim to Tribunal. However, many solicitors believe that the ‘unlawfulness’ of the Tribunal fees opens the door to former prospective claimants to bring post-2013 claims. Is this true?
The honest answer is ‘nobody really knows’ and, eventually, this question will be decided by tribunal judges.
One of the reasons this question hasn’t been effectively answered yet is partly due to the President of the Employment Tribunals issuing a universal stay on all claims linked to the ‘unlawful’ Tribunal fees judgment. This has, so far, prevented claims to tribunals asking this question.

However, one case, that of Dhami v Tesco Stores Ltd, slipped through the net. It did so because the case also included confusion over the effective date of termination by Tesco (which took it outside the stay imposed by the President of the Employment Tribunals).

In the Dhami case, the Claimant brought claims for disability and age discrimination against Tesco. However, her case was previously thrown out for non-payment of Tribunal fees due to her application for a fee remission being rejected. In the recent hearing, the Tribunal allowed her application for an extension of time in which to bring her case. Put simply, the Tribunal agreed that it was “just and equitable” (the legal test for extensions of time in employment tribunals) to do so in light of her case having been rejected due to unlawfully applied fees.

European Court of Justice gives OPINION on unpaid and untaken holidays

Does a worker’s holiday entitlement continue to accrue into successive years if they do not take their annual leave because their employer will not pay them for these holidays?

The Advocate General at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has answered ‘yes’ to this question, in a non-binding opinion.

In the case of King v The Sash Window Workshop Ltd, the Claimant, Mr King (who was a self-employed salesperson), brought an Employment Tribunal (ET) claim against the Respondent, The Sash Window Workshop, on the basis that he felt he was owed monies for annual leave that he had accrued, but not taken.  In addition, the Claimant sought compensation for annual leave that he had taken, but not been paid for during the 13 years he had been working for the Respondent – his claim for holiday pay therefore amounted to over £27,000.00.  It is of note that the contract under which Mr King was employed, provided no right to paid annual leave and that this contract was terminated in 2012, on his 65th birthday.  The Claimant also submitted a claim for age discrimination.

The claim was initially heard by the ET in August 2013.  It was ruled at first instance that Mr King was to be deemed a worker for the purposes of the Working Time Regulations 1998, and also that his discrimination claim was well founded.

The Respondent subsequently appealed against the decision of the ET in respect of the holiday pay aspect of the claim, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) allowing the appeal and remitting the holiday claim back to the ET.  Mr King then submitted an appeal to the Court of Appeal who referred the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

ECJ Advocate General Evgeni Tanchev, stated that employers had to provide “adequate facilities to workers” to enable them to take their paid annual leave.  Tanchev further stated:

“A worker, like Mr King, may rely on [EU law] to secure payment in lieu of untaken leave, when no facility has been made available by the employer, for exercise of the right to paid annual leave … Upon termination of the employment relationship a worker is entitled to an allowance in lieu of paid annual leave that has not been taken up.

“I appreciate that the answers to the questions referred I am here proposing would require employers rather than workers to take all the necessary steps to ascertain whether they are bound to create an adequate facility for the exercise of the right to paid annual leave, whether those steps be the taking of legal advice, consultation with relevant unions or seeking counsel from Member State bodies that are responsible for the enforcement of labour law.

“If an employer does not take such action, it will risk having to make a payment in lieu of unpaid leave on termination of the employment relationship. However, this would be in keeping with guaranteeing the effet utile of the right to paid annual leave, a fundamental right of substantive normative weight in Member State law, EU law, and international law, and would also be consistent with the practical reality, recognised in the Court’s case-law, of the worker’s position as the weaker party in the relationship.”

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

Can workers receive payment for ‘sleeping’ at work?!

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has recently considered this question, more specifically whether workers are entitled to the national minimum wage when ‘on-call’ (or sleeping!) at work.

In the case of Focus Care Agency v Roberts, along with two other cases heard at the same time (Frudd v The Partington Group Ltd and Royal Mencap Society v Tomlinson-Blake), Mrs Justice Simler (President of the EAT) assessed whether the Tribunals had been correct in deciding whether ‘sleep-in’ time should be considered ‘time work’ for the purposes of the National Minimum Wage Regulations.

The EAT essentially concluded that it depends on the circumstances – although it disapproved of the approach taken where workers are deemed to be working simply by being present on the employer’s premises or even provided with accommodation when being on-call. The EAT decided that a multi-factorial approach was required, or in other words it depends on the facts of each case.

Employers will obviously be asking themselves at this point how you differentiate between cases where a worker is “working” throughout a sleep-in shift, being paid to be on the employer’s premises “just in case”, and those where a worker is “on call” and not deemed to be working the entire time? The EAT guidance provided is as follows:

Consider the employment contract in addition to the nature of the engagement and the work to be carried out. Does the contract provide for the period in question to be part of the employee’s working hours? Depending on the facts of the case it may be appropriate to consider whether the contract provides for pay to be calculated by reference to a shift or by reference to something else, and if so, to what; or to whether a period is directly specified during which work is to be done.
The fact that a worker has very little/nothing to do during certain hours does not mean that they are not working. A particular level of activity is not required. An individual can be working simply by being present even if they are simply required to deal with unexpected circumstances, but are otherwise entitled to sleep – this is the case even where the likelihood and frequency of an untoward matter arising is low.
No single factor is determinative and the weight each factor carries varies according to the facts of the particular case in question. Potential relevant factors in determining whether a person is working by being present include:

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.

Online tribunal decisions are here

Last month I wrote about the impending online publication of all new employment tribunal decisions. In particular I highlighted the importance of this development for employers, notably SMEs, who might find that they have details of their businesses and procedures exposed to an extent not seen before. Appeal judgments have been available for years but this is the first time that first instance employment tribunal judgments have been made easily accessible by the general public.

The system is now live at www.gov.uk/employment-tribunal-decisions. So what are the first impressions? Well, it’s easy to use and, as I expected, there is a powerful search facility. A search of “Liverpool” produced two employment tribunal decisions, one concerning claims of direct race discrimination and unfair dismissal against a local nursing home. The judgments are available as downloadable pdfs.

There is also an RSS feed. Those familiar with the technology will know that RSS is generally regarded as standing for “Really Simple Syndication”. It is a way in which websites, blogs and even email clients such as Outlook can take automatic feeds from the website so that new content is automatically added whenever the page is updated. It is therefore a way in which the published tribunal decisions will reach a much wider audience than just those who happen to visit the government website.

It will also be possible for people to set up background searches, for example using Google Chrome. Google, like many other search engines and related tools, has a feature which allows people to set up alerts so that they are emailed whenever the relevant search term appears. Professional organisations have even more sophisticated tools for news gathering and this new resource will dramatically increase the range of content available to be accessed by them.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the website is that the content is not confined to new judgments. Available judgments date back as far as May 2015 so it must therefore be assumed that there is no time restriction on the judgments that may be published. Presumably judgments will be added over time so there remains a fair chance employment tribunal judgments from some time ago could suddenly appear.

The real problem for employers is that, even if claims are successfully defended, the details in the judgments could expose operational details which they would much rather keep to themselves, such as security, HR procedures and financial information.

Taking into account prior warnings when dismissing

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision in Bandara v British Broadcasting Corporation provides a reminder of the need to be careful when considering prior warnings in the context of deciding to dismiss someone.

Mr Bandara worked as a senior producer for the BBC, having commenced employment as a producer in July 1995. He worked within the Sinhala Service. His employment record in the period to 2013 was unremarkable. In March 2013 he was asked to book his team on a training course. He argued that this was the responsibility of another employee and he shouted at that employee. The other employee reported the matter to HR but there is no record of any action having been taken.

Mr Bandara was working on 23 July 2013, the day after Prince George was born. He decided not to prioritise the story because it coincided with the 30th anniversary of Black July, a sombre date in Sri Lankan history. The Service opened accordingly at 10.00 a.m. However, another employee disagreed with Mr Bandara’s approach and at 12.08 p.m. the news about Prince George’s birth was broadcast.

In August 2013 Mr Bandara was made the subject of disciplinary proceedings in respect of both incidents. By letter dated 19 November he was notified of the employer’s decision by investigator, Ms Iootty:
After carefully considering the allegations and your response to them, I have concluded that I believe that the allegations are true. This is an extremely serious matter as your behaviour in relation to both the incidents potentially constitutes gross misconduct. However I have taken into account that your behaviour has never been formally addressed before while you have been working at the BBC.
He was issued with a final written warning.

Further disciplinary proceedings followed in 2014 and resulted in Mr Bandara’s summary dismissal. Charges included: applying pressure on an employee to require another employee to leave a meeting; applying pressure on an employee to drop disciplinary proceedings; behaving in a bullying and intimidating manner; being involved in creating an perpetuating a culture of fear within the Sinhala Service; describing another employee in a discriminatory way by calling him a “sudda”; refusing to obey an instruction and shouting angrily to colleagues on two occasions.

The matter proceeded to an employment tribunal and in July 2015 it was found that the final written warning that had been issued was manifestly inappropriate. However, the tribunal concluded that the decision to dismiss was nonetheless fair. Mr Bandara appealed and the BBC cross-appealed on the finding that the final warning was “manifestly inappropriate”.

Anti-abuse charity employee awarded £90,000 for “calculated and premeditated” harassment

Roshni is the Urdu word for “light”. In June 2002 millionaire Ali Khan founded the charity of that name which is based in Glasgow. Its stated objectives are: “The advancement of education; the advancement of citizenship or community development; the relief of those in need by reason of age, ill health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage”. Its intended beneficiaries include children and young people and people of a particular ethnic or racial origin.

Misconduct within the charity became the focus of attention when an employee rejected advances towards her by Mr Khan, a married father of two. According to an Employment Tribunal, sitting in Glasgow, the situation deteriorated when Mr Khan attempted to turn the employee’s family against her. He threatened to turn up unannounced at her mother’s house to reveal an alleged affair between them.

The employee was so concerned by Mr Khan’s behaviour that she had a priority emergency police phone line installed at her home.

Mr Khan reacted to the rejection of his advances by reducing the employee’s working hours and she was issued with a final written warning. These actions were accompanied a campaign of physical and verbal abuse including making sexually explicit remarks, threatening to “post a video of them online”, to disclose intimate details of her private life, isolate her in the community and “damage her prospects”.

A clinical psychologist diagnosed that the employee had been left with major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Tribunal noted that the charity did nothing to stop the catalogue of abuse. It found that the Mr Khan’s threats left her feeling “very depressed, low and upset as well as powerless” and that she suffered “a lengthy and sustained series of acts of victimisation”. She was left in a constant state of “fear for her personal safety”. She was awarded compensation amounting to £90,000.

However, the charity has shown a notable lack of contrition following the Tribunal findings.