This week we look at a recent Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) case in which an art teacher was found to have been dismissed due to her pregnancy. Our Adrian Twomey highlights the key points to note in the case of Sarah Adam v Dublin and Dun Laoghaire Education and Training Board, ADJ-00028925.
The Complainant, Ms Sarah Adam, commenced fixed-term employment as an art teacher with Dublin and Dun Laoghaire Education and Training Board (DDLETB) on 1 September 2019. She was pregnant and took maternity leave between 16 December 2019 and 14 June 2020. A Ms A filled the role during that time to cover the Complainant's maternity leave.
The Complainant's contract expired on 31 August 2020 although, by that stage, DDLETB had already undertaken a new recruitment process to fill the post for the following academic year. Both the Complainant, Ms Adam, and Ms A were interviewed for the job. It was given to Ms A. The Complainant filed a complaint with the WRC under the Employment Equality Act 1998 (as amended) and the Maternity Protection Act 1994. She alleged that she was the victim of discrimination due to her gender and family status (i.e. the fact that she had children).
The WRC Adjudication Officer noted that a decision to not renew an employee’s fixed-term contract because of their pregnancy amounts to gender discrimination (relying on the EU cases of Melgar v Ayuntamienta de los Barrios (C-438/99) and Tele-Denmark (C-109/00)).
The WRC went on to note that the interview panel had been aware that Ms Adam had been pregnant and had taken maternity leave and paid particular attention to the following factors:
The first question asked of Ms Adam at the interview was "you've worked in a lot of schools, haven't you?" The Adjudication Officer noted that such "closed, direct questions" had "negative connotations", had not been put to Ms Adam when she was interviewed the previous year and did not appear to have been put to Ms A.
The interview notes recorded that Ms Adam had completed "some" CPD "but not enough" whereas Ms A had completed no CPD but planned to do so in the future. The Adjudication Officer found that it was "irrational" to find that Ms Adam had not completed "enough" CPD when she had years of CPD set out in her application form and had attended recent CPD training not attended by Ms A.
The Adjudication Officer noted that Ms Adam was asked three times to give examples that related to the previous year, during which time she had been on maternity leave. He concluded that this would have necessarily had a "discombobulating effect on any candidate".
Ms Adam appeared to the Adjudication Officer to have had better and more extensive qualifications than Ms A.
Some of the Complainant's answers did not appear to have been taken fully into account in assessing her competencies.
The Adjudication Officer concluded that these and other factors gave rise to an inference of discrimination against the Complainant by DDLETB. The discrimination arose because of her pregnancy and maternity leave. He concluded that this inference had not been rebutted by the employer and found as follows:
"the legal protection afforded to gender in particular arising from pregnancy and maternity leave deserves effective, proportionate and dissuasive legal protection. Taking these factors together, I award redress of €35,000."
Employees should note that they are being treated unlawfully if they are dismissed or otherwise ill-treated by their employers because they are or have been pregnant or have taken maternity leave. Employers should note that questions asked and notes taken at interviews need to be carefully considered in case they imply an intention to discriminate where none might exist.
Those who require advice in relation to employment law cases or who need representation before the WRC or Labour Court can contact our Adrian Twomey.