Pregnant woman automatically unfairly dismissed after two sick days, tribunal rules

22 Apr 2020 By Maggie Baska

Law firm discriminated against administrator after it said it was ‘unable to rely’ on her following leave for pregnancy-related illness

A law firm has been ordered to pay £23,060 to a former employee after it admitted to dismissing her because of pregnancy-related illness, a tribunal has ruled. 

A Manchester employment tribunal found Ms K Wright, who was employed as an administrator at Coupland Cavendish, was dismissed after one week of employment because she suffered from pregnancy-related hyperemesis, causing nausea and vomiting. 

Coupland Cavendish, which trades as Gowing Law Solicitors, originally said the reason for Wright’s dismissal was that the firm was “unable to rely on the claimant” because of her absences. But in a letter to the tribunal, the firm conceded that the principal reason for Wright’s dismissal had been connected with her pregnancy and accepted she had been unfairly dismissed and discriminated against.

The tribunal heard Wright commenced her employment with Coupland Cavendish on 18 March 2019. At the time she was pregnant and suffering from hyperemesis – a complication during pregnancy that can cause severe nausea and vomiting.

During her first week Wright was absent from work on 21 March because she was nauseous and vomiting in the early morning. She was absent again the following Monday (25 March) for the same reason. 

That afternoon, Wright was dismissed by email. The tribunal said the email detailed why Wright was dismissed, but further details were not given in the ruling. However, the conclusion of the email was that Wright’s dismissal was the result of Coupland Cavendish being “unable to rely” on her.

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Wright brought a claim of automatic unfair dismissal and maternity and pregnancy discrimination against Coupland Cavendish, claiming the reasons it had given for her dismissal were “inadequate or untrue”. She also claimed the firm had failed to provide written particulars of her dismissal.

On 31 January 2020, solicitors for Coupland Cavendish wrote to the tribunal conceding that the principal reason for Wright’s dismissal was her illness as a result of her pregnancy. It accepted Wright had been unfairly dismissed and discriminated against because of her pregnancy. 

In his ruling, judge Phil Allen found that the reason given to Wright in her dismissal email – that Coupland Cavendish felt it was unable to rely on her – was “not inadequate”. It was also the “true reason” for her dismissal, he said, “albeit in fact an unfair and discriminatory one”.

The tribunal awarded Wright £23,060 for loss of earnings, injury to feelings, loss of future earnings and interest. 

Wright also sought aggravated damages against Coupland Cavendish because the firm conceded liability only a week before the tribunal hearing, but the tribunal decided not to award this.

Joeli Brearley, founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, said this case was “all too common” in her experience. She said it highlighted how “little regard and understanding” some employers had for the toll pregnancy could take on women's bodies. “No woman asks to be that ill and experiencing that in addition to the pressures of starting a new job is a hugely stressful situation for anyone to find themselves in,” she said. 

Brearley added that the best way for employers to handle pregnancy-related issues was to provide better training to staff on such topics. “Employers need to ensure that line managers have the training and insight to deal sensitively with pregnant employees and also female workers going through menopause or other health issues,” Brearley said.

“Of course, if we had more women in senior and management roles in the first place, this kind of empathy for pregnancy and women’s health might come more naturally to employers.”

Gowing Law Solicitors has been contacted for comment. Wright could not be reached for comment.

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