Can a misconduct dismissal amount to disability discrimination if the employer was unaware that the misconduct was connected to a disability?

Yes, ruled the Court of Appeal in City of York Council v Grosset.

It held that it was disability discrimination to dismiss a teacher for showing an 18-rated film to a class of vulnerable 15 to 16-year-old students. This was because the teacher, who had cystic fibrosis, was suffering from stress and it was found that his behaviour was a consequence of his condition. The teacher was awarded £646,000 in compensation.

The council understood that Mr Grosset had cystic fibrosis and adjustments had been made to accommodate his condition when he started his employment. However, following a change in head teacher, who was not informed of the condition, some of these adjustments disappeared. Combined with a syllabus change that increased his workload, Mr Grosset began to suffer from stress and his disability was exacerbated.

The dismissal amounted to discrimination arising from disability (under section 15 of the Equality Act 2010). The council argued that it was justified under its aims of protecting children and upholding disciplinary standards. However, the dismissal was considered a disproportionate sanction, particularly given the acute stress that Mr Grosset was under due to the council’s failure to make reasonable adjustments.

The Court of Appeal held that Mr Grosset had been treated unfavourably because of “something”, and that “something” (showing the film) had arisen because of his cystic fibrosis. Whether the council knew of this connection between the disability and the “something” was not relevant.

Therefore, when it comes to disability discrimination, employers can avoid liability if they did not know, and could not reasonably have been expected to know, that an employee had a disability. However, they will not be saved by the mere fact that they did not know that the disability was to blame for certain behaviour.

Employers should take this as a warning not to ignore signs of stress amongst their workforce and to thoroughly investigate the causes of employee misbehaviour, particularly when they know that employee has a disability. Furthermore, employers should make sure that reasonable adjustments have been made for disabled employees and that these adjustments are carefully maintained.

 

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