Felines, Facebook, Depression and Discrimination at the WRC
Employment cases involving famous employers or large awards are the ones that most often grab the newspaper headlines. Sometime, however, it is the smaller cases that are most interesting. Davis v Phibsboro Cat Rescue, ADJ-00033363, is one such case to have been recently decided by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). The case involved the consideration of issues around social media, mental health and employment equality. Our Adrian Twomey highlights the key points to note in the decision.
The Complainant, Ms Davis, commenced employment with Phibsboro Cat Rescue on 16 November 2020 after previously having volunteered for approximately two years. She was paid €1,602 per month. She was dismissed on 2 March 2021; less than four months after commencing employment. She did not have the necessary one year of service to pursue a claim under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 but did sue for alleged discriminatory dismissal under the Employment Equality Act 1998 (as amended).
Ms Davis gave evidence that she tested positive for COVID-19 on 5 January 2021 and was out of work sick for some time thereafter. She said that when she wanted to return to work she was told to work in a "storage unit" that was essentially no more than a shed. She objected to doing so but was refused permission to work from home. It appears that the complainant suffered from depression and she informed her employer that her doctors were worried about her mental health.
The Complainant gave evidence that her employer blocked her on facebook groups and had messaged her via facebook stating that she had refused to work. It certainly appears from the decision that there was interpersonal conflict between the Complainant and her employer.
On 22 February 2021 Ms Davis told her employer that her doctor had signed her off as unfit for work until 11 March of that year. She gave evidence that her employer told her that she was dismissed the very next day although her dismissal appears to have taken effect on 2 March 2021: the date on which she was issued with a dismissal letter. She found another job elsewhere starting in July 2021.
In response, the employer contended that Ms Davis was dismissed because she was not a "suitable fit" for the organisation. It appears that the decision was made by the board of the organisation. The employer argued that Ms Davis had only worked for 44 days before she was dismissed. It submitted that it was entitled to dismiss her during her probation period without following the full range of procedures that might normally be expected.
The Adjudication Officer found that:
"the complainant had a disability – depression – that falls within the definition of ‘disability’, in particular subsection e), i.e. ‘a condition, illness or disease which affects a person’s thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgement or which results in disturbed behaviour.’"
He went on to find that the employer was aware of the complainant's disability as she had discussed it with them and had provided medical certification. He observed that the:
"complainant cited three issues in the complaint of discrimination. The first in time was being prevented from working from home and having to work at the named alternative location. The second is her being blocked on the social media accounts operated by the respondent. The third is the decision to dismiss the complainant on the 2nd March 2021."
Having considered these issues in more detail, the Adjudication Officer went on to find that:
The complainant raised health issues, specifically issues relating to her mental health and her depression.
Following this, she was dismissed.
While there was a difference of opinion regarding whether the alternative location was appropriate, the complainant could have easily worked from home.
The reason why the complainant was dismissed was because of the deteriorating relationship with her manager and that deteriorating relationship "stemmed from how the respondent interacted with the complainant’s disability".
The complainant had clearly stated why she was not able to attend the alternative location but that she was otherwise able to work. She referred to her disability, but also that she could work. Nevertheless, she was dismissed.
The Adjudication Officer concluded that Ms Davis had been the victim of discrimination and discriminatory dismissal based on her disability. He awarded her €8,000: a sum that exceeded what she had earned whilst working for the employer and that also exceeded her loss of income during the period in which she was out of work after her dismissal. Had she been a senior executive earning a six-figure salary, the case would clearly have been worth substantially more.
Employers should note that great care needs to be taken when considering issues relating to employees and their medical conditions. Professional medical and legal advice should normally be sought before making any decisions that might be damaging to such employees. Those who require advice in such circumstances or who need representation before the WRC can contact our Adrian Twomey.