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.