An experienced property solicitor was rejected for a job at a law firm despite being the only person interviewed because of age discrimination, an employment tribunal has ruled.
The tribunal heard that Raymond Levy, aged 57, made “what he saw as a joke” about being poisoned before the start of his interview with a Russian solicitor, but that was not the reason why he was rejected.
In a ruling from last July only just published, Employment Judge Langridge in Manchester said that, having “carefully considered” the explanations of at Cheshire-based McHale Legal for not offering Mr Levy a job, she found them “seriously wanting”.
The judge went on: “We were satisfied that the reason why the claimant was not offered the position was that he was considered ‘expensive’ and that this was indeed synonymous with his being an experienced and older solicitor.”
The judge said the law firm began by attempting to recruit a solicitor with five or more years’ post-qualification experience (PQE), but after not offering the job to Mr Levy, reduced this to three-five years before eventually covering the vacancy with “junior or unqualified members of staff, undoubtedly also at much lower salaries”.
In his rejection email, Mr Levy was told that the firm was looking for a solicitor with three-five years PQE and it would keep him in mind if it should have a need for a “senior lawyer” in the future.
Judge Langridge said the tribunal felt the law firm had “little understanding and awareness of discrimination” despite a “clumsily worded commitment” in its staff handbook.
“The lack of formal training in diversity and equality issues was apparent from the respondent’s complacency and its aggressive defence of its claim was wholly at odds with its self-imposed commitment in its handbook to take such complaints seriously.”
The judge said “continued threats” during the proceedings to report Mr Levy to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for bringing the claim if he was not successful were “revealing of an employer which is impervious to the possibility that it may have discriminated”.
The employment tribunal heard that, before the job interview started, Mr Levy was in the law firm’s reception area, where a television was showing the news and a report about the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury.
The judge said Mr Levy, who did not know that the solicitor greeting him was Russian, “made a comment to the effect of ‘I hope you aren’t going to poison me’.”
Judge Langridge said Mr Levy did not refer to Maria Udalova-Surkova’s Russian nationality, and the remark was not “directed to her personally”, but he was “prompted to make what he saw as a joke by the news report”.
Ms Udalova-Surkova – whose departing associate created the vacancy – was “taken aback by the comment but said nothing in response, and the interview went ahead without further reference to it”.
Mr Levy said he was aware that the salary would be less than the £60,000 he might get in London. He offered to work on a salary of around £50,000 and they discussed a potential start date. Ms Udalova-Surkova said the decision was subject to a ‘board meeting’.
In her notes for that meeting, she said Mr Levy was the only person to apply. The note included the words: “Expensive. Doesn’t cover our needs.”
The tribunal concluded that the latter was not the principal reason for not appointing Mr Levy. “There had been no discussion at interview about his ability or willingness to cover other areas of work, such as residential property.
“The tribunal’s conclusion is that the claimant’s capabilities and experience were not in fact in issue, and he would have been a suitable replacement for the experienced associate solicitor who had until recently been assisting Ms Udalova-Surkova.
“The redistribution of the property work within the firm, utilising staff who were either inexperienced in commercial property work or even unqualified, did not in our view fill the gap for which the respondent advertised.
“The fact that the respondent chose to embark on this course was equally consistent with it taking steps to manage the consequences of not appointing the claimant. The need for assistance with commercial property work had not disappeared, but the respondent made up its mind that the claimant would not be the person to provide it.”
Judge Langridge concluded that the firm’s decision not to employ Mr Levy could not be considered a “proportionate means of achieving any legitimate claim” because Mr Levy was flexible about salary and duration of the job, offering to work on a self-employed basis.
However, no effort was made to negotiate with him: “Rather than keep an open mind and negotiate terms with the claimant, the respondent instead deprived him of an opportunity to obtain work at a time when he was unemployed and receptive to discussing the salary level.”
There was no “credible, coherent and consistent explanation” for the firm’s decision.
Mr Levy sought compensation for loss of earnings, based on continuing losses even after finding alternative work, and requested an award for injured feelings. The outcome of the remedies hearing has not yet been published.
We have approached McHale Legal for comment.