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Dismissing a teacher for showing pupils a horror movie is disability discrimination

May 31, 2018
Employment Law

You may have read about the recent case of City of York Council v Grosset on the BBC website.  It concerned a teacher with cystic fibrosis who, whilst suffering from stress as a result of an increased workload, showed a group of 15-year olds the 18-rated horror movie, ‘Halloween’.

The question for the courts and tribunals was whether his dismissal amounted to an act of disability discrimination.

The facts

It was commonly accepted that the school was initially aware of Mr Grosset’s condition.  However, following a change in management, the new head teacher began to place additional pressures on Mr G, without realising the impact this might have on his health and wellbeing.  Whilst suffering from considerable stress, Mr G accepted that he exercised an error of judgment in allowing his pupils to watch the horror film.  However, when the incident subsequently came to light and he was subjected to disciplinary proceedings, Mr G was remorseful and argued that the error of judgment was a result of the stress from which he was suffering as a result of work pressures and his worsening health.

When he was dismissed, he brought claims for both unfair dismissal and disability discrimination.

The decision

Interestingly, Mr G’s unfair dismissal claim failed at the Employment Tribunal, but his disability discrimination claim succeeded.  York Council were unhappy with the result and appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and then to the Court of Appeal.  There, 3 appeal court judges once again found in Mr G’s favour.

Under section 15 of the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to treat a person unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of their disability unless the employer can show the treatment to be justified.

Lawyers for York Council argued that for Mr G’s claim to succeed, he needed to show that the school knew he had shown the film for reasons related to his medical condition.  Whilst this was accepted at the ET hearing, it was not accepted at the point at which Mr G was dismissed.  The Court of Appeal rejected the council’s argument.  Furthermore, the Court of Appeal saw no inconsistency between the fact that Mr G’s unfair dismissal claim failed, whilst his discrimination claim succeeded.  The Court of Appeal confirmed that employers have ‘significant latitude’ when it comes to the assessment of the fairness of a dismissal.  By contrast, the Employment Tribunal was entitled to conclude that for Equality Act purposes, the decision to dismiss was disproportionate.

The cost of getting things wrong

The outcome in this case, whilst legally correct, is bound to confuse many employers.  How can a decision to dismiss be both ‘fair’ and ‘disproportionate’ at the same time?  Well, the simple answer is that different standards are applied, depending on whether we are concerned only with unfair dismissal laws or whether discrimination laws are activated as well.

By the way, the parties to this dispute have recently agreed that Mr G is entitled to compensation of £646,000 in relation to his disability discrimination claim.  This is an exceptionally high award, but it underlines the risks associated with getting things wrong.

If you’re currently dealing with a situation involving issues of ill-health or disability, please get in touch to find out more about how we can help.

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