UK: City Of York Council To Pay Over £600,000 In Compensation To A Teacher For Disability Discrimination

Last Updated: 4 June 2018
Article by Ogletree Deakins

 On 15 May 2018, the Court of Appeal held that an employee will be successful in a claim under section 15 of the Equality Act 2010 (which prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee because of his or her disability) if they can show a causal connection between unfavourable treatment and a disability. In the case of City of York Council v Grosset, the unfavourable treatment related to the dismissal of Mr Grosset, a teacher, for showing a group of 15 and 16 year-old pupils the bbfc-18 rated film Halloween. Grosset suffered from cystic fibrosis and stress from an increased workload that intensified and worsened his condition. He claimed that these conditions led to a lack of judgement when he showed the students the film without consent from their parents or the school. Grosset is reportedly set to receive £646,000 in compensation.

Facts of the Case

  • The claimant, Grosset, was Head of English at a Secondary school in York, which was under the control of the City of York Council. Grosset suffered from cystic fibrosis. Until 2013, reasonable adjustments to his working pattern and a strict daily three-hour exercise regime allowed him to perform his role adequately. Grosset was good at his job and helped the school achieve its best ever GCSE examination results.
  • In 2013, a new Head Teacher, Mr Crane, was appointed, but he was not made aware of Grosset's condition nor the reasonable adjustments that were in place that had accommodated it. At the same time, the school introduced a new criterion by which the English department would be measured. The new measures highlighted some problems within the department, therefore as a result, the school implemented new steps to try and overcome the department's difficulties. This resulted in an increased workload for Grosset and placed greater scrutiny on teacher performance.
  • Grosset wrote to Crane and highlighted how the increased workload and subsequent stress was affecting his condition; however the school did not make any reasonable adjustments and a referral to the school's occupational health support was delayed. Grosset had fallen behind on his exercise regime, he was stressed and a recent medical check-up had found his lung function was at its lowest ever level. He was told a double lung transplant could be required if his condition deteriorated any further. By the end of November 2013, Grosset was signed off as unfit for work.
  • A few weeks prior to being signed off, Grosset taught a small class of 15 and 16 year-old students, described as a "nurture group", that needed more attention than others. As part of a lesson on narrative plots, Grosset showed the class the bbfc- 18 rated horror film, Halloween. Grosset did not obtain permission from the students' parents or the school before showing the film, and he was unaware that some children in the class were suicidal or at a risk of self-harm.
  • It was only after Grosset had been signed off sick and Crane was covering his lessons that he discovered the children had been shown the film. The school suspended Grosset, and a disciplinary hearing was held.
  • Grosset accepted that showing the film had been inappropriate and expressed regret. He said that it was an error in judgement caused by stress and his cystic fibrosis.
  • Neither the disciplinary panel nor the appeal panel accepted that the incident was the result of an error of judgement caused by stress; they also did not believe Grossest properly recognised the seriousness of what he had done. In April 2014, the school summarily dismissed Grosset.

The Employment Tribunal

Grosset brought claims in the Employment Tribunal (ET) for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. By a majority, the ET dismissed Grosset's claim that he had been unfairly dismissed. The ET held that it had been within the range of reasonable responses open to the disciplinary and appeal panel that had heard his case. However, the ET did uphold that Grosset's dismissal due to disability related conduct amounted to unfavourable treatment. By failing to make adjustments for and discounting the cystic fibrosis related stress as the reason for the conduct, the ET found that the school had been unreasonable and, thus, concluded that the disability discrimination claim should succeed. Had the adjustments been made, the ET found, the film incident would not have happened, and had the school recognised that the conduct was disability related, the dismissal would not have happened.

The Court of Appeal

The City of York Council appealed the discrimination finding and Grosset appealed the unfair dismissal finding. The Employment Appeal Tribunal rejected both appeals. The City of York Council then appealed to the Court of Appeal (CoA), claiming that it could not have treated Grosset unfavourably as it had not connected the conduct to his disability and because Crane was unaware of any such link. The CoA rejected the appeal and held that the ET was right to find that the school could not use an inability to connect the conduct with the disability as a defense. The Court of Appeal concluded that whether the City of York Council was aware of the link between Grosset's conduct and his disability was irrelevant, and the treatment was therefore unfavourable. Grosset was reportedly awarded £646,000 due to a high injury to feelings award (his cystic fibrosis and stress caused severe lung deterioration) and also his final salary pension loss.

Key points to note from this case

This case shows that a dismissal can be procedurally fair but also discriminatory. In this case, because the school failed to link Grosset's conduct to his disability, his dismissal was a reasonable response. However, the discrimination element of Grosset's claim posed an even greater financial liability. Regardless of the intent behind the unfavourable treatment—i.e., whether it was done consciously or subconsciously—it is nevertheless unfavourable treatment. Even if there is the slightest link between conduct and disability, the employer could be liable. Employers that find themselves in similar circumstances should consider investigating how the employee's disability could affect an employee's conduct or performance to avoid any unconscious discrimination.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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