Paralegal wins claims for disability discrimination and harassment

Claim: Comment about Muslim paralegal’s headscarf was harassment

A paralegal at a London law firm was unfairly dismissed over unpaid wages, subjected to disability discrimination and harassed on the basis of her sex, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Forida Kaiser was dismissed by Khans Solicitors primarily because she was increasingly asking for unpaid wages, while the other reason was because she was disabled, said Judge Jones in East London.

“The [law firm] did not want to continue to employ someone who [partner Muhammad Omar Khan] thought was likely to be off sick again and who continued to advocate for her wages.”

A Muslim, she was told by a colleague that she may have more chance of finding a man if she did not wear a headscarf, which amounted to harassment.

Ms Kaiser had first worked for Khans, then just in Ilford, Essex, in 2013-14, and rejoined in April 2019. The firm agreed to back her bid to qualify as a solicitor but she was to work initially as a paralegal while she sorted out various issues with the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

The tribunal found that the firm had constructive knowledge that Ms Kaiser was a disabled person in relation to multiple conditions: fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, stress and anxiety, glaucoma and dry eyes, and later on cervical spondylosis.

“The claimant did not use the word ‘disability’ and did not have to do so in order for the respondent to know that she had conditions that had a substantial adverse effect on her ability to carry out day to day activities,” it said. “The claimant did not keep her conditions a secret from the respondent.”

There were instances of direct disability discrimination, such as not providing Ms Kaiser with training on a new case management system – which the firm’s practice manager said was because she was “always off sick” – and not making various reasonable adjustments she had requested, including her desk set-up and allowing her to come in 30 minutes later to allow pain medication to kick in.

The tribunal held that, when Ms Kaiser informed Mr Khan on 1 February 2021 of her recent diagnosis of cervical spondylosis, “this was the final straw for the respondent”.

It went on: “His response was to ask her to come off PAYE and become a self-employed person. The respondent made it clear during a conversation about her health, that it did not want to continue to employ her.”

This was despite the tribunal finding that she was a hard-working and conscientious member of staff who had brought in clients on numerous occasions as well.

She was made redundant the following day even though there had been no sign up to that point that redundancies were being contemplated. Ms Kaiser said she was the only member of staff released.

The tribunal found that Khans did not pay Ms Kaiser either her wages or the commission to which she was entitled for attracting clients. This amounted to automatic unfair dismissal.

It was sceptical about the firm’s explanations to her that there was no money, given that “the business transferred its operation from Ilford to what was likely to be more expensive offices in Canary Wharf, in August 2020, during an uncertain time due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“The evidence shows that there was likely a confidence about the firm and its future in 2020. The respondent did not provide evidence of a redundancy situation or how it went about deciding who to make redundant.”

There were two events that amounted to harassment. In one, the practice manager required Ms Kaiser to move heavy furniture in the Ilford office despite the paralegal’s protests that her medical conditions made it difficult for her and her fingers might go numb from the pain.

The manager shouted at Ms Kaiser, telling her that she would not accept any excuses and that “she would not die” from doing it.

This was “disrespectful, unnecessary and dismissive” and had the effect of violating Ms Kaiser’s dignity and of creating “a hostile, intimidating, degrading and humiliating environment for her”.

The second event was related to her sex, when a male conveyancer told Ms Kaiser – a fellow Mulsim – that if she did not wear a scarf, she might find it easier to attract men.

He also shouted at her to go elsewhere with a client to whom she was talking in a way that made it sound she was interested in the client in a sexual way.

“These comments upset the claimant. As a practising Muslim man, Imitiaz [the conveyancer] would have known that modesty in dress is important to the claimant as a Muslim woman and that he was likely to insult her by the suggestion that she needed to go against her beliefs in order to attract a man.

“The claimant was being professional in speaking to [the] client and the suggestion that there was anything else going on hurt her feelings deeply. She felt disrespected and insulted by Imitiaz’s comments.”

There will now be a remedy hearing.

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