One of the common difficulties within the workplace is managing employees with significant medical conditions. Since the pandemic there has been a rise in cases of stress and anxiety within the workplace, which, if sufficiently serious may be a disability for the purpose of employment law. Employers are often reluctant to engage with such conditions for fear of overstepping the mark. This in turn can lead to employee’s negative behaviour going unchecked.

The recent case of Bodis v Lindfield Christian Care Home is a useful reminder not only of how important it is to recognise the full effect a medical condition may have in the workplace, but also provide assurances to employers that they retain options to manage and discipline employees.

Facts of the Case

In the case, the employer investigated a series of incidents within the workplace, including drawing facial hair on photos of female staff, spilling water and the liquid from reed diffusers as well as turning off the boiler. As a result of their investigations the employer concluded that Ms Bodis was likely responsible, and an investigatory meeting was held.

Ms Bodis was suffering from depression and anxiety at the time which was sufficiently serious to be deemed a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 (s.6). During the investigatory meeting Ms Bodis gave short and evasive answers to questions. The way Ms Bodis approached the disciplinary interview was accepted as part of the reason for taking the matter forward to a disciplinary hearing.

Following a disciplinary hearing Ms Bodis was dismissed on grounds of conduct. Ms Bodis in turn brought Employment Tribunal proceedings against her employer for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. Ms Bodis argued that her conduct, including how she responded to the investigatory process, was due to her disability and as such the investigation was discriminatory.

In the first instance the Employment Tribunal dismissed Ms Bodis’s claims. Whilst it agreed that Ms Bodis’s conduct at the investigatory meeting was due to her disability, it also concluded that this was only a ‘trivial’ influence and the decision to dismiss did not arise from the conduct. The decision was appealed.

The Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) partially upheld the appeal. The EAT agreed that the way Ms Bodis had answered questions during the investigation was one of the reasons for proceeding to a disciplinary hearing. It also agreed that it was a minor influence. However it found that even a minor cause is sufficient for a claim for disability discrimination to be made out.

Ultimately the appeal failed as the EAT went on to find that the treatment of Ms Bodis was a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of maintaining disciplinary standards in the workplace.

In Conclusion

This case highlights 3 very important aspects of managing disability within the workplace.

The first issue is the definition of disability. Under section 6 of the Equality Act 2010, a Claimant has to satisfy the Tribunal that they are suffering from a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial adverse impact on normal day to day activities and is “ long term” meaning lasted or expected to last more than 12 months in total. This will always be a question for the Tribunal. If in doubt, members should assume that a condition is a disability until a medical report is obtained.

The second issue is the importance of ‘reasonable adjustments’. In this case the Tribunal did not hold that the employee could not be disciplined. The issue was that the effect of the employee’s condition on her responses to the investigatory meeting was not considered when deciding how to proceed.

Lastly, employers are reminded that there is a defence available to discrimination arising from disability claim. Under section 15 of the Equality Act 2010 there is a defence available if the treatment was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (known as that objective justification defence). In this case the employer had a legitimate interest in maintaining disciplinary standards within the workplace, and the decision to discipline was proportionate even where the employee was put to disadvantage due to her disability.

Employers need to be aware of the full effect of an employee’s condition when considering their conduct for disciplinary purposes. Even if an employee’s disability has a minor effect on the decision to take action, it can still be deemed an effective cause of discrimination and lead to a claim for discrimination. However, where such effects are considered and reasonable adjustments made, if the employer can establish a legitimate interest and any action taken is proportionate, then disciplinary action can be taken

 

Don’t forget, this advice is general in nature and will need to be tailored to any one particular situation. As an RMI member you have access to the RMI Legal advice line, as well as a number of industry experts for your assistance. Should you find yourself in the situation above, contact us at any stage for advice and assistance as appropriate.

 

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