Employer not liable for disability discrimination because of an absence of knowledge
Ms Donelian started working for Liberata UK Limited in 1999, from 2004 she worked as a Court Officer. From around September 2008, Ms Donelian started to arrive at work late, leave early or take days off at a time (sometimes without notice). In one year, she was absent for a total of 128 days. She gave numerous reasons for her absence, including stomach upsets, wrist pains, head colds, stress and anxiety. To investigate Ms Donelian’s absences, Liberata did the following:
- Referred her to Occupational Health – The OH report concluded that she wasn’t disabled but it did not answer some of the questions put to the doctor;
- Obtained a more detailed report from a second doctor – This report didn’t respond properly to all of Liberata’s questions either;
- Corresponded with her GP; and
- Held return to work meetings.
In October 2009, Ms Donelian was dismissed for (1) bad attendance; (2) failing to comply with absence notification procedures; and (3) failing to work her contractual hours. Ms Donelian brought a number of claims in the Employment Tribunal (‘ET’), one of which was for a failure to make reasonable adjustments (that is, adjusting the attendance expectations).
The ET found that Ms Donelian was disabled, but dismissed the reasonable adjustments claim because Liberata didn’t know she was disabled. It was accepted that Leberata had no actual knowledge; the case turned on whether or not Liberata had constructive knowledge (that is, whether it should have found out, based on what it did know). The ET thought Liberata had done what it could reasonably be expected to do to discover any disability. Ms Donelian appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, who upheld the ET’s decision. She further appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, concluding that Liberata did not have constructive knowledge of the disability. Its rationale was that an employer must have constructive knowledge of all three legal elements of a disability; which are (1) an impairment; (2) the prognosis; and (3) the effect on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
The case illustrates the importance of employers undertaking thorough investigations when looking into whether or not their employees have a disability. This will greatly assist in avoiding disability discrimination. This is because the more thorough the investigation, the better the chances are of employers both discovering and dealing appropriately with employees who have disabilities. Additionally, in the event an employer does not discover a disability, a thorough investigation can act as evidence of an employer legitimately not having constructive knowledge of the disability and thus avoiding liability for disability discrimination (like in this case).
By Zahid Reza
Image used under CC courtesy of Sherwood