Technician with arthritis, depression and anxiety awarded £117,000 after unfair dismissal

Tribunal finds employer did not apply its own policies, with an appeal process ‘little more than an attempt to look like a correct procedure was being followed’

A school technician has been awarded £117,013 after he was unfairly dismissed and discriminated against because of his disability. 

The tribunal ruled Mr D Walker, who worked as a technician at Old Swinford Hospital School from June 2014 until his dismissal in September 2017, was unfairly dismissed after the school decided he could no longer perform his role because of his disability. 

It found that Old Swinford Hospital School did not apply or follow its own disciplinary policy throughout the dismissal of Walker. Judge Mark Butler said there was no investigatory meeting, warning or improvement plan in place to help Walker.

“The appeal process was little more than an attempt to look like a correct procedure was being followed,” Butler said. “Procedure was found wanting in this case, and the dismissal was also procedurally unfair.”

Walker started working for Old Swinford Hospital School in June 2014 as a technician in the school’s art, food technology and design and technology departments. The tribunal heard Walker had psoriatic arthritis, depression and anxiety, and had periods of absence and lateness throughout 2016 and into 2017. 

From January 2017, these periods increased as a result of a change in his mental wellbeing. The tribunal heard this continued to worsen because of a change in Walker’s medication in February, which caused nausea, dizziness and sedation.

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Walker said he would contact the school if he was going to be late or absent. His line manager would pass the information to HR, which would record this.

His absences during 2016 and 2017 triggered several return to work meetings over the course of the two years. In one such meeting, on 30 January 2017, Walker was referred to occupational health, and he attended an appointment on 17 February. 

The report from this appointment recommended Walker be restricted from operating hazardous equipment – such as circular and band saw, guillotine and forge machinery – while his medication stabilised, which was expected to happen over the subsequent four weeks. 

However, the tribunal found Old Swinford Hospital School gave no consideration to adjusting Walker’s role, and he was back fulfilling his duties – including using all of the above equipment – during or around April. 

The only adjustment considered by the school was to offer Walker two alternative roles. But he rejected these because they involved a reduction in pay and because of concerns about some other aspects of these positions. However, the school failed to address any additional reasons behind his refusals or to consider adjusting the roles. 

The tribunal heard the school then decided to move Walker out of his role as a technician around the end of March. This decision was communicated to him by a letter from the school bursar (who had overall line management responsibility for HR), dated 27 July. The tribunal found this was the first and only time it was communicated to Walker that he would no longer be able to remain as a technician.

Initially, the dismissal meeting was arranged to take place on 25 September, but Walker emailed the school to say he would not be able to attend as he had been “off work sick with stress and anxiety, [because of] the events of the school’s threat to terminate” his contract. He added that he was “not currently in a position to completely undertake and constructively partake in such a life-changing meeting”. 

The tribunal heard that the school did rearrange the meeting, but Walker was unable to attend because of his continued ill-health. 

The tribunal found no formal dismissal meeting ever took place. Walker’s dismissal was simply actioned when he rejected the second role and when it became clear he was not intending to appear at the rearranged meeting. As such, the tribunal found that Walker was dismissed on 29 September 2017.

Walker appealed the decision, which was denied by the school. He then lodged claims of unfair dismissal, disability discrimination and breach of the duty to make reasonable adjustments.

The tribunal found Walker had been the victim of disability discrimination and was unfairly dismissed because of his disability. Butler explained the decision to dismiss Walker did not take account of the short-term nature of his restrictions or his improving absence and lateness record. 

The tribunal awarded Walker £85,829 for loss of past and future earnings, loss of past and future free meals and injury to feelings. A further £31,184 was agreed in settlement of the outstanding pension claims.

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said this case highlighted how failure to carry out appropriate procedures in response to an employee with a known disability could lead to a costly discrimination claim. “The employer’s poor communication with the employee over making reasonable adjustments, and poor consideration of their suitability, meant that the company was ultimately found not to have adhered to this legal requirement, despite the fact some adjustments were considered,” Holcroft said. 

“What employers should take from this is the importance of having clear policies and procedures in place when responding to difficulties a disabled employee is facing, and how they should ensure management is fully aware of them,” he said. He added that managers should receive full training on how to assist disabled employees – and that additional, refresher courses should be considered if necessary.

Old Swinford Hospital School was contacted for comment. Walker could not be reached for comment.