The Court of Appeal has recently held in City of York Council v Grosset that the dismissal of a disabled teacher amounted to unfavourable treatment under the Equality Act 2010. This decision has been referred to as “an important landmark in the development of disability discrimination”.
The teacher suffered from cystic fibrosis and so was a disabled person for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. The Respondent was aware of his disability and reasonable adjustments were made to support him, however following the appointment of a new headteacher, these reasonable adjustments were overlooked and the teacher was subjected to an increased workload which caused him significant stress.
The teacher, during this period of heightened stress, showed the 18-rated film ‘Halloween’ to his class of 15 year olds, some of whom were vulnerable to self-harming. He failed to obtain approval from the school, or consent from the pupils’ parents and, once this incident was brought to light, he was subsequently dismissed for gross misconduct following suspension and an investigation.
The teacher issued a claim under section 15 of the Equality Act 2010 (discrimination arising from disability) and for unfair dismissal. The claim for unfair dismissal was dismissed by the employment tribunal; however the claim under section 15 was upheld.
The teacher accepted that showing the film was inappropriate and asserted that it had happened as a result of an error of judgment on his part arising from the high level of stress he was under at the time – this high level of stress was in consequence of his disability. This was not accepted by the school and it was considered that the teacher had not shown appropriate remorse or properly acknowledged the seriousness of his actions.
It was accepted that the teacher was required to spend up to three hours a day in a punishing regime of physical exercise to clear his lungs. This severely restricted his ability to adapt to any sudden and/or significant increases in his workload. The appointment of the new headteacher at the school led to a significant increase in the teacher’s workload. This caused him significant stress and, as a result, he was unable to cope. The employment tribunal found that this increase, and the teacher’s subsequent dismissal, amounted to unfavourable treatment under the Equality Act 2010.
The employment tribunal held that section 15 did not require there to be an immediate causative link with the teacher’s disability. The teacher’s error of judgment arose in consequence of his disability. The employment tribunal found in favour of the teacher and he was awarded damages of 646,663.
The Respondent appealed to the EAT and then the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal dismissed the Respondent’s appeal and noted that, had the school maintained the reasonable adjustments that were in place as required by the Equality Act 2010, the teacher would not have been subjected to the same level of stress which led him to erroneously show the 18-rated film to his class. The teacher’s dismissal was therefore disproportionate in this case. There was no requirement for the Respondent to know the teacher’s behaviour occurred in consequence of disability.