Law firm discriminated against disabled paralegal

Employment: Paralegal seriously impacted by illness

A law firm discriminated against a seriously ill paralegal by dismissing him after only three months while he was on sick leave, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Employment Judge Flood in Birmingham said Daniel Russell first became ill with what turned out to be a very serious stomach condition only two weeks after starting work at local firm RLK Solicitors.

RLK argued that it dismissed Mr Russell because of underperformance and errors in his work at the end of his probation period.

However, Judge Flood said Mr Russell was “seriously impacted by his illness”, which turned out to be an inflammatory bowel disease, acute colitis.

He was “unwell for most of his employment, albeit that the seriousness of his illness was not appreciated by either the claimant or the respondent for all that time”.

Judge Flood said the quality of Mr Russell’s work was “bound to have been detrimentally affected by his disability” and the fact there was no medical evidence stating this was not “particularly conclusive”.

The judge said it was “clearly the case” that Mr Russell’s work did not meet the standards set by his supervising partner, ‘SJ’, but a “significant contributor” to him failing to meet those standards was his disability.

SJ extended Mr Russell’s probationary period, aware that the paralegal had just been discharged after a week in hospital, but once he was told that the paralegal would be on sick leave for another six weeks, “decided to dismiss and did dismiss”.

The paralegal was employed from 15 July to 16 October 2017 by RLK, a small firm of solicitors providing commercial litigation, conveyancing and private client advice.

As was its practice, the firm recruited paralegals who had completed their legal practice course, some of whom went on to become trainee solicitors. Mr Russell worked in the commercial litigation department.

He began to suffer from severe stomach pain in late July, having been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome the previous November.

His first day of sick leave was 3 August and he did not return to work for 11 days. He had been mistakenly diagnosed by his GP with gastroenteritis and “did not feel well, but was anxious not to miss any more work”, the tribunal found.

Mr Russell became concerned when his condition did not improve and “described having crippling pain as his stomach muscles contracted”.

He collapsed at home in mid-September, was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease by a specialist and was discharged from hospital at the end of the month.

However, only a day later he was very ill again and needed emergency surgery as his condition was so serious. He was discharged on 10 October but told the law firm his recovery period was expected to be six weeks.

Judge Flood said that, by the time of Mr Russell’s dismissal on 16 October, the law firm “either was expressly aware that the claimant had a disability or could reasonably have been expected to know, given the information in its possession”.

Since the firm did not put forward a justification defence, the judge ruled that the paralegal succeeded in his claim of disability discrimination under section 15 of the Equality Act.

Mr Russell also succeeded in his reasonable adjustments claim under sections 20 and 21 of the Act. In November 2017 he emailed the firm, identifying that in his view he was a disabled person who had been discriminated against, and asking about reintegration into the team.

Judge Flood said reinstating him immediately on receipt of the email was not a reasonable adjustment; however, holding an appeal meeting where Mr Russell could explain how his performance was affected by his illness and discuss a way forward would have been.

Mr Russell, who had not been allowed to appeal directly after his dismissal, could have been reinstated and his probationary period extended. He was offered only a meeting to inform him of the reasons for his dismissal.

The judge concluded that the law firm had failed to comply with its duty to make reasonable adjustments.

RLK Solicitors said it would not make comment on the case while it was considering the ruling.

A remedy hearing will follow if necessary.

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