Ex-managing partner fails in £80k claim despite discrimination finding

Tribunal: Injuries not attributable to unlawful conduct

An employment tribunal has rejected a former law firm managing partner’s claim for non-pecuniary damages despite an earlier finding that he had suffered disability discrimination.

Employment Judge Rogerson also said two key assertions Michael Willis made to support his £80,000 compensation claim were untrue, the second time the tribunal had reached such a conclusion during the proceedings.

Mr Willis was absent from Sheffield-based GWBHarthills due to ill-health from July 2018 – initially due to cancer and later depression and then stress – and retired from the partnership in March 2021.

The remedy hearing on whether Mr Willis had suffered injury to feelings and personal injury followed two claims he brought against the firm and partners Hester Russell and Elizabeth Lord.

In the first, the respondents admitted both direct and indirect disability discrimination, as well as a failure to make reasonable adjustments. There was no hearing for this.

The conduct started in November 2019 and stopped on 7 January 2020 following the intervention of Mr Willis’s solicitors.

“The complaints of discriminated were taken seriously and corrective action was taken,” the latest tribunal noted. Before and after this period, the respondents’ treatment of Mr Willis was found to be lawful.

The second claim of disability discrimination and victimisation was rejected, with the tribunal “very reluctantly” finding that Mr Willis “was not a truthful witness” and tried to mislead it “in some material aspects by the evidence he gave”.

A key element of the case was the precondition of the income protection payments he received under permanent health insurance (PHI) provided by Aviva and paid for by the firm on the basis that he was ‘totally’ unable to work.

Until October 2019, Mr Willis agreed that he could not have the PHI benefit and continuing income from the firm. Thereafter, he “changed his mind and decided he could have both without any deductions of his PHI benefit”.

The second tribunal found he concealed the truth from Aviva about the work he was doing and his income from the firm because it would have affected the PHI benefit.

Between October 2018 and April 2021, Mr Willis received £214,000 from Aviva; his full profit share for 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 were allocated into his current account without any deductions for the PHI payments.

At the point he retired, Mr Willis was to be repaid £337,000 if there was no deduction made for the PHI payments.

The latest tribunal went through each admitted detriment but was not satisfied that any of the injury to feelings or personal injury “was attributable to, arose from, or can be apportioned in any way to the unlawful conduct conceded by the respondents”.

It continued: “In so far as any injury to feelings or personal injury has been proven, we have found the injury was attributable to the respondents’ lawful conduct for which the respondents are not liable to pay any compensation to the claimant.

The same went for the cost of care it was claimed was provided to Mr Willis as a result of his personal injury.

Judge Rogerson said two key assertions Mr Willis made to support his claim “have been found to be untrue” – these were that he would have returned to work on or around January 2020 and that he genuinely believed he had been expelled in November 2019.

“These were false assertions the claimant has made knowing them to be untrue in another attempt to mislead the tribunal to support his compensation claim. This was unreasonable conduct of these proceedings by the claimant.”

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