The Court of Appeal upheld a claim for discrimination arising from a disability even though the employer was not aware that the disability caused the employee’s gross misconduct when dismissing.
In City of York Council v Grosset, the claimant was a teacher who suffered from Cystic Fibrosis. The school had made reasonable adjustments to assist him at work but on the arrival of a new headteacher, the claimant’s workload was dramatically increased. Because of the stress he was under, he showed a class of 15 year olds an 18 certificate film, without obtaining any consent from the school or parents. He accordingly faced disciplinary proceedings and was dismissed for gross misconduct.
The claimant’s claim for unfair dismissal was dismissed by the tribunal, but his claim for disability discrimination under s15 of the Equality Act, unfavourable treatment because of something arising in consequence of disability, was successful. The tribunal held that, even though the school was unaware that the gross misconduct of showing the film was linked to the claimant’s disability, medical evidence proved a link did exist. This evidence could be relied on even though it had not been available to the Council when the claimant was dismissed. The Council argued that they had an objective justification for the unfavourable treatment, namely the safeguarding of children. The tribunal agreed this was a legitimate aim but did not accept that the Council had acted proportionately in seeking to achieve that aim.
The Council’s appeal to the EAT was dismissed. The EAT agreed with the tribunal, that it did not matter whether the Council actually knew that the ‘something arising in consequence of a disability’ which lead to the employee’s unfavourable treatment was a consequence of his disability; all the Council needed to know was that the claimant was disabled.
The Council appealed further to the Court of Appeal (CA). In dismissing the appeal, the CA stated that s15 of the Equality Act involves two points to consider:
- Did the employer treat the claimant unfavourably because of an (identified) ‘something’
- Did the ‘something’ arise as a consequence of the claimant’s disability?
Point 1 required looking at the Council’s state of mind, and whether “the unfavourable treatment occurred by reason of [the Council's] attitude to the relevant "something".” The Council dismissing the claimant for showing the 18 certificate film was, therefore, the “something”. Point 2 required an objective assessment of whether there is a causal link between the disability and the "something". The tribunal was accordingly entitled to find such a link between the claimant showing the film as a result of stress from his increased workload, and his disability.
The CA also agreed with the tribunal and EAT in respect of the Council’s objective justification defence, and noted that reasonable adjustments should have been made to limit the claimant’s workload (and therefore his stress levels) which would have meant the incident for which he was dismissed would have been unlikely to occur.
Nicola Butterworth comments:
“This case highlights the importance of making sure reasonable adjustments are put in place for disabled employees and also of getting a medical report as part of a disciplinary investigation process where there is a known disability which could have affected an employee’s behaviour. Training staff in dealing with disability-related issues is a useful tool to help minimise the risk of discrimination claims within your organisation. If you would be interested in training in this area, please contact a member of the team.”