A woman who was sacked after a disagreement over a desk move led to extensive time off with mental ill-health has been awarded £75,000 by a tribunal.
Leeds Employment Tribunal heard that L Bannister had been employed by The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) since April 1990 as an administrative officer. She initially worked in counter avoidance but, around December 2013, her team was disbanded and she was told she would have to move floors.
Shortly after this, Bannister phoned one of the managers to tell them she was unable to cope with her life and, a few days later, called back to explain she was an alcoholic and her mental health condition was preventing her from moving desks.
Bannister eventually agreed to return to work following a conversation with another manager and, although she apologised for allowing the desk move to become a “big thing”, she explained it was because she felt settled in her original location.
Then, in a letter dated early 2014, an occupational health adviser noted that Bannister had said she had been suffering with depression for three years and that she was vulnerable to future episodes of mental ill-health, but determined she was fit to work.
However, Bannister went on to have problems with attendance. She was issued her first written warning on the matter in April 2014 and continued to have several periods of absence until March 2015, when she was signed off work by her GP for alcohol dependence, anxiety and depression. She continued to be signed off under a string of notes for similar issues until she was dismissed in January 2016.
In April 2015, it was decided that Bannister would move teams again. Bannister protested, but was ultimately told it was not possible to reverse the decision about the move. At one point, a team leader told her that “in fairness, he was not aware of issues around previous moves and, to be honest, he had no interest”.
Bannister kept in touch with her employer about her return to work throughout the time she was signed off, but the tribunal heard that the conversations about the desk move quickly became strained.
After carrying out a report into Bannister’s sickness absence in August 2015, HMRC concluded that she should be dismissed. It was also decided, in October 2015, that Bannister should not receive any compensation under the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. Although Bannister appealed both the decision to dismiss her and the decision not to award compensation, she was told in January 2016 that both appeals had been unsuccessful.
Allowing the claim for disability discrimination, Judge Keevash decided that HMRC had failed to make reasonable adjustments – such as allowing Bannister to work at her old desk for a short period of time while she prepared herself to move – to help her return to work.
In particular, the tribunal found that Bannister had given several examples of evidence that suggested she “needed the security of an established routine at the workplace and that any change posed a threat that unsettled her”. For example, Bannister explained how she would not board a bus if she felt there were too many people already on it and would avoid joining a supermarket checkout queue if there were already three people in it.
HMRC has been ordered to pay Bannister £75,294.89, including £38,000 for pension losses, £17,152.22 for lost earnings and £15,000 for injury to feelings.
People Management has contacted HMRC for comment but had not received a reply at the time of writing. Bannister could not be reached for comment.