Case law updates

Special care needed when suspending and investigating if disability is involved

An NHS worker who was dismissed because of a compulsion caused by one of her disabilities to frequently check when her medical appointments were, has won a case for unfair dismissal. In S J Austin v The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, the employer commenced an investigation, which increased Austin’s already high anxiety. Because of this, and lengthy delays and no updates, she sought more information on the investigation from her line manager. As a result of this Austin was suspended, an act that was found to be discrimination in itself.

The tribunal found that the dismissal was unfair as the claimant “had no way of knowing that her actions were prohibited or could lead to dismissal” and the conduct for which she was dismissed “was not culpable or blameworthy”.  Additionally, the tribunal found that the employer had failed to take into account her health or disability at any stage of the process. Both her suspension and dismissal were down to something arising from the disability, namely her “pestering” for information and her need to compulsively check her medical appointment times. All this amounted to disability discrimination.

Expert commentators have noted that the case underlines the importance of proper, impartial processes and of approaching the circumstances of each case with an open mind. In this case, the process followed by the employer was heavily criticised, as the investigators and decision-makers failed to properly investigate or consider the relevant matters. They also entered the process with closed minds and came to conclusions that were perverse and unreasonable.