Award to Deter Discrimination Against Those with Mental Health Problems

Significant Award to deter discrimination against those with mental health problems

The Equality Authority today welcomed a landmark award totalling €57,900 euros by the Labour Court in respect of an employee who was found to have been discriminated against on the grounds of his disability. The Labour Court was considering two separate claims in relation to the one situation – a claim for discriminatory dismissal and an appeal in relation to an Equality Tribunal finding of discrimination. The claimant was represented by O ‘Mara, Geraghty, McCourt Solicitors. The award was made up of:

  • €41,900 or one year’s salary to cover economic loss in relation to discriminatory dismissal.
  • €8,000 to compensate for the stress, anxiety and indignity of the discriminatory dismissal and to serve as a deterrent against future infractions.
  • €8,000 to compensate for the effects of discriminatory treatment.

Commenting on the case, Niall Crowley, CEO of the Equality Authority highlighted that “the scale of the this award breaks new ground and will serve as an important deterrent to discrimination against people with mental health problems. The Labour Court have set down a timely and valuable marker for employers in this regard. Currently 10.7% of Equality Authority case files relate to the disability ground and a common feature of these is a failure to make reasonable accommodation to ensure the employee with disabilities is fully capable of doing their job. Making such reasonable accommodation is key to unlocking the contribution of people with disabilities in the workplace and to addressing the high levels of unemployment experienced by people with disabilities”.

He pointed out that “this case was heard under the Employment Equality Act, 1998. The Act has since been amended to impose a more substantive obligation on employers to make reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities”.

The claimant was employed in a specialist capacity for over 14 years with his employer. In April 2002 he was admitted to hospital suffering from a psychiatric illness. He was discharged from hospital in June 2002 and was advised by his psychiatrist that he could return to work preferably on a phased basis. The employer did not allow the claimant to return to work.

The complainant was referred to a psychiatrist nominated by the respondent and later to an occupational physician. He was eventually allowed to return to work in October 2002. He was given a job description and was told that he could no longer deal with clients and that his work would be monitored. The Court accepted that the claimant felt that he was not wanted and that the respondent was intent on making his life difficult. The claimant resigned.

The Labour Court accepted that at the commencement of his illness the respondent did provide commendable assistance to the claimant. However the respondent’s later treatment of the complainant could not be so characterised. The Court was satisfied that the respondent had a marked reluctance to accommodate the complainant in returning to work and would not accept that the respondent gave any adequate consideration to providing the complainant with the type of special treatment which would have allowed him to resume work following his discharge from hospital. The Court found that the respondent failed to do all that was reasonable to accommodate the complainant’s needs by providing him with special treatment or facilities so as to enable him to return to work on a phased basis. It found that the employer did discriminate against the complainant on grounds of his disability when it refused to allow him to resume employment between July and October 2002.

In the Court’s view the employer’s approach to the complainant on his return to work was not indicative of a caring or sympathetic attitude towards an employee who had been absent from work with a serious psychiatric illness. After his discharge from hospital the employer appears not to have had any personal contact with the claimant, apart from one meeting, the employer communicated by letters. The Court accepted that the complainant was ignored by his employers over the two days between his return to work and his resignation.

The Court was satisfied that the employer conducted itself in relation to the complainant in a manner which was destructive of a relationship of mutual trust and confidence. The Court was satisfied that, having regard to the complainant’s undoubted emotional and psychological vulnerability at the time the conduct of the respondent was so unreasonable as to justify the complainant in resigning there and then.

“This case is one of the first to raise issues of mental health under the disability ground”, stated Niall Crowley, CEO, Equality Authority. “Significant stigma can all too readily accompany a diagnosis of mental illness. This leads to discrimination and exclusion. The support an employee receives at a time of such illness can be vital. It can make the difference between remaining in employment and continuing to make their contribution or leaving employment and experiencing an exacerbation of their illness. The role of reasonable accommodation in this context is central, benefiting both employee and employer. A comprehensive assessment of the needs of the employee is the key requirement. This needs to be done with imagination and flexibility. All too often these are missing and discrimination results”.

Ends

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