Veganism and discrimination

Last year the BBC ran a story on what it described as a ‘landmark’ case on whether veganism, or more specifically, ethical veganism was a religion or belief for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.

The factual background to the case is that the Mr Casamitjana was dismissed by his employer, the League Against Cruel Sports, for what the employer deemed to be gross misconduct. Mr Casamitjana however has (I assume) alleged that the dismissal was discriminatory, the exact label upon which the discrimination is alleged to occur is unclear but I would imagine it is a complaint of direct discrimination given the employer’s statement to the press that “Mr Casamitjana is seeking to use his veganism as the reason for his dismissal.”

Landmark?

Whilst the BBC (and Mr Casamitjana for that matter) seem to promote the case as landmark I really do not see it as such.  The protected characteristic of religion of belief in the Equality Act is broad and includes philosophical beliefs of which ethical veganism is potentially surely one whether there has been a case considering this or not.  The test for whether a philosophical belief is covered by the protected characteristic of religion or belief is set out in the EAT’s decision in Grainger PLC v Nicholson [2009]. Grainger, which itself concerned the alleged protected belief of climate change and the environment, sets out that five questions need to be answered affirmatively, and if they are then the belief is protected:

(i) The belief must be genuinely held.
(ii) It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
(iii) It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
(iv) It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
(v) It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

What is noteworthy is that it appears likely that the EAT’s decision takes the scope of religion and belief discrimination much further than the then New Labour government that introduced it intended – for example, in 2010 after the EHRC issued guidance that veganism was probably a protected belief the Government Equality Office objected to this expansion saying

the government did not share the view that climate change or veganism were religious beliefs; however, the interpretation was a matter for courts. The spokesman said: “The Equality Bill does not change the existing definition of religion or belief and the Government does not think that views or opinions based on scientific – or indeed on political – theories can be considered to be akin to religious beliefs or philosophical beliefs. Nor was it the intention in introducing the legislation that such beliefs should be covered (source).

Be that as it may the broader approach has indeed been accepted by the courts and it is not hard to see that ethical veganism is quite capable of meeting these five Grainger tests. Indeed, the EHRC in its Religion and belief guidance is explicit that “Beliefs such as humanism, pacifism, vegetarianism and the belief in man-made climate change are all protected.” There is no sensible reason why vegetarianism should be a protected belief and veganism is not.

Again, quoting from the BBC’s piece, Peter Daly the solicitor for Mr Casamitjana explains that if his client is “successful, we will achieve a judgment which formally recognises the protected status of ethical veganism and which could then be used as the basis to combat discrimination against vegans in employment, in the provision of goods and services, and in education. This is therefore a landmark case.”

Frankly, whether a tribunal has ever formally recognised ethical veganism as a protected belief or not it is little more than PR to describe this as ‘landmark’ the fact that according to Mr Casamitjana’s own crowdfunding appeal this apparently ‘contentious’ issue has now been conceded by the employer.

What seems more likely is that the real battle will be not on whether the treatment was because of the protected belief itself or because of conduct that arguably grew out of that belief similar to the recent Court of Appeal judgement in Kuteh upholding the fairness of the dismissal of a Christian nurse for inappropriate proselytism during work hours.

Protected Belief

To continue with the vegan theme I note that the Daily Mirror is reporting today on demands to outlaw vegan discrimination, with Alex Monaco a solicitor being quoted as saying:

If you were Jewish or Muslim and told to get a round of bacon sandwiches in, no one would bat an eyelid if you refused. But if you’re vegan and refused to buy a pint of milk to make tea because you believe the dairy industry is torturing cows, then you would be laughed out of the kitchen. Employers should have a duty to ensure vegans are protected at work and are offered options. The ultimate aim is to get the law changed so that the Equality Act includes vegans.”

I have to confess it does strike me as a strange demand since, as should be clear, there is no reason that claims of discrimination at work on the basis of veganism cannot already, on the current law, be pursued meaning there is no need to “get the law changed” at all. The mission is already accomplished!

Discriminatory Dismissals and the Band of Reasonable Responses

In the 2017 case of O’Brien v Bolton St Catherine’s Academy the Court of Appeal considered the question of whether the test of whether a discriminatory dismissal under section 15 of the Equality Act 2010 was necessarily an unfair dismissal.

The key issue was whether the test as to whether a dismissal was “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” was the same as the test for unfair dismissal in section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, what is commonly referred to as he band of reasonable responses test.

In the original Employment Tribunal hearing after having reviewed the processes that led up to dismissal of a disabled employee for reasons relating to her disability the Tribunal declared that:

Any reasonable employer would have conducted the appropriate balancing exercise required of it under s15 Equality Act before reaching the decision to dismiss, before upholding that decision on appeal. Both panels, at the Medical Incapacity Hearing and at the Appeal hearing, failed to carry out that balancing exercise. The respondent was well aware that the claimant was a disabled person within the meaning of the Act. In all the circumstances we find that dismissal fell outside the band of reasonable responses because it was a discriminatory act

The Tribunal found therefore that “because” the dismissal was discriminatory (and therefore unlawful) it was outside the band of reasonable responses and, therefore, also an unfair dismissal. The fact of the case do, to me, give me pause as to whether the dismissal really was discriminatory and this decision was reversed by the EAT.

What is of interest to me is is the determination by Underhill LJ in paragraphs 53-54:

However the basic point being made by the Tribunal was that its finding that the dismissal of the Appellant was disproportionate for the purpose of section 15 meant also that it was not reasonable for the purpose of section 98 (4) … I accept that the language in which the two tests is expressed is different and that in the public law context a “reasonableness review” may be significantly less stringent than a proportionality assessment (though the nature and extent of the difference remains much debated). But it would be a pity if there were any real distinction in the context of dismissal for long-term sickness where the employee is disabled within the meaning of the 2010 Act.

At issue is the what a Tribunal needs to decide when considering a discrimination and an unfair dismissal case. In Iceland Frozen Foods Ltd v Jones, the seminal case that codified the band of reasonable responses test, two of the five key considerations were that:

  • in applying the section an employment tribunal must consider the reasonableness of the employer’s conduct, not simply whether they (the members of the industrial tribunal) consider the dismissal to be fair;
  • in judging the reasonableness of the employer’s conduct an employment tribunal must not substitute its decision as to what was the right course to adopt for that of the employer;

The court further observed that

  • in many (though not all) cases there is a “band of reasonable responses to the employee’s conduct within which one employer might reasonably take one view, another quite reasonably take another;

The tribunal therefore is not asked to decide ‘should the employee have been dismissed’ but rather ‘did the employer act reasonably in deciding to dismiss the employee’ and later cases have clarified that the tribunal is prohibited from adopting a substitution mindset (thinking about what decision they would have made), their task is to assess the decision maker’s decision not to make the decision again. Whilst there is an objective decision in play it is only in respect to the findings of fact as to whether the subjective decisions of the dismissal decision maker were ‘reasonable.’  By (apparent) contrast the task in a discrimination claim is to fact decide the issue and make objective decisions. But are the two regimes really different? Underhill LJ continues:

The law is complicated enough without parties and tribunals having routinely to judge the dismissal of such an employee by one standard for the purpose of an unfair dismissal claim and by a different standard for the purpose of discrimination law. Fortunately I see no reason why that should be so. On the one hand, it is well established that in an appropriate context a proportionality test can, and should, accommodate a substantial degree of respect for the judgment of the decision-taker as to his reasonable needs (provided he has acted rationally and responsibly), while insisting that the tribunal is responsible for striking the ultimate balance; and I see good reason for such an approach in the case of the employment relationship. On the other, I repeat – what is sometimes insufficiently appreciated – that the need to recognise that there may sometimes be circumstances where both dismissal and “non-dismissal” are reasonable responses does not reduce the task of the tribunal under section 98 (4) to one of “quasi- Wednesbury” review: see the cases referred to in para. 11 above. Thus in this context I very much doubt whether the two tests should lead to different results.

When this judgement was published I worried about the implications since, in practical terms it suggested that the threshold under which a finding of discrimination should be made is the substantially the same as when considering whether a decision was in the range of reasonable responses. The problem with this is that this test is, in my view, more onerous than a balance of probabilities one with the result that it would be harder for a worker to establish that their treatment was discriminatory, especially where there is also a claim of unfair dismissal.

Thankfully, last year in City of York Council v Grosset the Court of Appeal clarified matters somewhat. Commenting on this suggestion that the test for a discriminatory dismissal and an unfair dismissal are the same was rejected:

I think it is clear that Underhill LJ was addressing his remarks to the particular facts of that case, and was not seeking to lay down any general proposition that the test under section 15(1)(b) EqA and the test for unfair dismissal are the same.

I don’t think it was in any way clear that the comments were just related to “the particular facts of that case” but, nonetheless, the rejection of the proposition that the two tests are the same is a welcome one.

Pimlico Plumbers Visit the Supreme Court

supreme courtIt is only less than two months since Don Lane, a worker for courier firm DPD, died after DPD fined him £150 for having the audacity of attending a necessary hospital appointment.  As a ‘self-employed’ worker workers like Lane have very few effectively no employment rights. For example, fining a worker for attending a disability related medical consultation is potentially disability discrimination but could such a person make such a claim?

A firm such as DPD would probably, as Pimlico Plumbers did in the case that started in the Supreme Court today, say no and the basis of the of that denial is section 83(2)(a) of the Equality Act 2010 which states that a person may make a claim for discrimination if they are in “employment under a contract of employment … or a contract personally to do work”. Since many alleged self-employed workers do have a right of substitution – the ability to ask someone else to do the work (a substitute) – they do not have a contract to personally to do work and therefore they are unable to bring a claim for discrimination. The facts underlying the Pimlico case are worth repeating and bare more than a passing  resemblance to the tragedy that faced Don Lane.

Mr Smith had worked for Pimlico for a few years as a plumber but had a heart attack. He wanted to reduce his hours of work but after making a request to do so which was refused Mr Smith was dismissed. He made a claim for unfair dismissal (which was struck out as he was not an employee), unpaid holiday pay as a worker (under EU law) and discrimination. The ET, EAT and Court of Appeal all found in favour of Mr Smith on the worker and s.83 points but it is this the Mr Charlie Mullin is challenging.

Whilst the judgement on worker status will be important it is the decision of standing to bring claims under the Equality Act that is most important and potentially far reaching.

The law on employment status in the UK is a farce with Parliament mandating that those with the most tenuous status having the least statutory rights to protect them from unscrupulous and domineering ’employers’ whilst employees  who tend to me more secure in employment having the most.

Mr Mullins is doing the media rounds on how the case is different from Uber and his position is common sense but the bottom line is his argument is that workers like Mr Smith who have a claim they have been discriminated against and have had their livelihood’s destroyed should  have no right to claim discrimination at all. That is not common sense, that is naked exploitation.

It is Parliament that have allowed this joke of employment rights (non)protection where the most vulnerable workers are given the lowest level of protection and right of redress to remain in place for so many years and, for all the noises, I do not see that the Taylor Reforms will make any real difference.

I hope that the Supreme Court has the sense to ensure that the attempt of Mullins, who will have every rogue employer in the country rooting for him, to remove most gig economy and self employed workers from the protection of UK anti-discrimination law fails.

Disability and Disciplinary Dismissals

disabilityIn recent weeks the Employment Appeal Tribunals judgement in Thomson v Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust has been published. The key issue which has been attracting comment is the endorsement of the first tier tribunal’s decision that a dismissal may be unfair because of the choice of the decision maker, even when there is no accusation of bias, and the choice of the decision maker was entirely consistent with the employer’s disciplinary decision.

The decision is an important one to which I may return to in in a later article; however, the case also concerned a complaint of disability discrimination.The decision on this point is not ground-breaking in legal terms but it does I think raise some helpful issues for employee representatives dealing with disciplinary proceedings where disability is alleged to be a factor.

The claimant was a Consultant Neonatologist who was dismissed for bullying colleagues. She was at the time of the misconduct subject to a formal warning for misconduct but was dismissed for gross misconduct so the prior warning had little significance for the case. The claimant was also claimed she was disabled by reason of her dyslexia which the Respondent conceded at a Case Management Discussion. During the proceedings the claimant sought to suggest she was disabled by reason of her dyslexia and depression and following an amendment to the claim the claimant made a complaint that the Respondent had failed to make a reasonable adjustment for the claim.

The claimant alleged that the Respondent operated a “a practice of normally dismissing in the case of conduct found to be gross misconduct.” This was the provision, criterion or practice required by section 20(3) of the Equality Act 2010 that was alleged to place the claimant at a substantial disadvantage. The main contour of the allegation is found in the ET’s determination of this complaint, which is cited in paragraph 14 of the EAT’s determination:

Did the (valid) PCPs put the Claimant at a substantial disadvantage in relation to a relevant matter in comparison with persons who were not disabled?  We have reminded ourselves of the wording of paragraph 48 of the amended Grounds of Appeal (quoted above).  The comparative disadvantage was said to arise from the alleged fact that the Claimant’s disability made her more likely to be found guilty of conduct amounting to or perceived as bullying.  That is to say more likely than persons who were not disabled.  Essential to the argument is the stated link between dyslexia and/or neurodiversity (the disability or disabilities pleaded) and the behaviour liable to amount, or be perceived as amounting, to bullying.  In our judgment, the insurmountable difficulty confronting Mr O’Dair is that the link is simply not made out.  Dr Harrison’s evidence in answer to Dr Mitchell’s first question was very clear (see above).  He makes no connection between dyslexia or neurodiversity and bullying behaviour or conduct which might be seen as harassment.  Nor does Dr Roberts offer any support for Mr O’Dair’s theory.  Subtle problems of perception and misreading of verbal cues are a world away from the sort of behaviour of which the Claimant was accused.  As the case progressed Mr O’Dair appeared to seek to overcome these difficulties by focusing on the evidence of Professor Harrison pointing to incipient depression.  But the obvious answer to that is that we are not dealing with a disability discrimination case based on depression.  No such complaint is before us.

 Dr Harrison’s answer referred to above was in respect to the question posed which was in “your opinion is it likely that the bullying and harassing behaviour are due to dyslexia?”. Dr Harrison’s answer was “I am unaware that dyslexia per se is considered to be a cause of bullying and harassment.  Indeed, I would say that the opposite is more likely to be the case, ie people with dyslexia may be the victims of bullying by others. Dyslexia may be associated with other conditions.  This has been termed neurodiversity.  Examples of other conditions include dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. … As a consequence of having neurodiversity, low self esteem may develop leading to depression and anxiety.  People who are increasingly anxious or depressed may behave erratically and may display irritability and short temper and lack of tolerance of others.”

The EAT dispatched with this case quickly (and in my view correctly) as follows (paragraph 24):

So far as depression is concerned, on which Mr O’Dair places considerable reliance for his aggregation argument, on the evidence placed before the Tribunal we see from the later letter of 25 July 2012 from Professor Harrison to Mr Kuku, the BMA representative Senior Employment Advisor acting for the Claimant, the Professor’s  view of the Claimant’s anxiety was as follows:

“… Based on my own assessment, I had formed the view that she had developed an adjustment disorder including anxiety and depression.  Although I have not had contact with the MedNet psychiatrist, it appears that there is an external opinion that Merran is suffering from severe stress and reactive depression.  In my judgement I think this is due to the effect of the investigations that have taken place, the outcome of the first investigation which placed her on a final warning and concerns that more complaints have been made about her. …”

That is a clear opinion expressed that any anxiety and depression observed in the Claimant was caused by the processes which led to her dismissal.  In other words the investigations into her conduct and what happened thereafter.  They do not, in our judgment, lend support to a suggestion that the Employment Tribunal erred in failing to hold that the Claimant was suffering from depression at the material time, whether or not that was to be relied on as constituting the disability for the purpose of their claim before them standing on its own alongside the dyslexia or as amalgamated with it, as in the Patel case, resulting from dyslexia.  On the evidence before the Tribunal, in particular Professor Harrison’s letter of 25th July 2012, on whose previous letter considerable reliance was placed, Professor Harrison was of the view that such anxiety and depression was caused by the inquiry into the complaints against the Claimant and was not present at or before the events which led to the inquiry.

In short, the claimant’s disability, dyslexia, could not be held to have been a made the claimant more prone than she would have been but for her disability to result is misconduct action (and in turn dismissal) proceedings being instituted against her. Therefore, the link between the claimant’s disability and the alleged substantial disadvantage (greater likelihood of being dismissed) was simply not made out. In passing even if the link was made out is would appear to me that, following Griffiths v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the claimant would still have been unsuccessful since substantial disadvantage could not be established since a non disabled employee would also have been dismissed in such circumstances. That is a fundamentally unfair provision and one can only hope that the appeal against the EAT’s decision in Griffiths is overturned when the Court of Appeal comes to issue its judgement on the appeal (heard in February I understand).

As I have written before there may be cases (and even cases of criminal misconduct) where a finding of deliberate or intentional wrongdoing owing to disability cannot be sustained and, therefore, a finding of gross misconduct is impermissible. These are likely to be rare, however.

Trade union reps are much more likely to encounter situations where a disabled person may be more likely to resort engage in misconduct offences than they would but for their disability. In such cases there are potential arguments of failure to make adjustments, discrimination arising from disability and indirect discrimination.

An example would be precisely the type of case alluded to in the medical evidence in Thomson. A person on the Auspergers Spectrum can sometime have difficulty in interpersonal relationships. This disadvantage, especially in times of heightened stress, can lead to raised voices and comments being made in anger/exasperation. I have seen this type of situation result in disciplinary proceedings.

It is in this context that the Thomson judgement serves as a useful reminder to reps. What seems apparent was the EAT had no difficulty accepting that a normal practice to dismiss was a provision, criterion or practice for the purposes of the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 (and by implication also under section 19 of the Act). And so, where a person’s disability has an effect on their conduct but not to the extent where it gives a complete defense on culpability grounds (as in Burdett) there is still the prospect, even if a non disabled person would be dismissed for the same act for a claim to be made the application of that practice represented a failure to make adjustments and/or indirect discrimination.

Case references:

Thomson v Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust [2015] UKEAT 0218_14_3001

Griffiths v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions EAT/0372/13

Burdett v Aviva Employment Services Ltd [2014] UKEAT 0439_13_1411

Is Diabetes Necessarily a Disability?

diabetesIf a person has type 2 Diabetes are they necessarily disabled under the Equality Act 2010?

This was the question considered by the Employment Appeals Tribunal in Metroline Travel Ltd v Stoute [2015] UKEAT 0302_14_2601. The claimant had type 2 diabetes but was not on medication for this but did control his condition by controlling his diet, this basically comprised of the claimant avoiding fizzy drinks. The first tier tribunal made reference to the statutory guidance on the definition of disability which it was obligated to have due regard to. In particular, the Tribunal considered paragraph B12 of that guidance (emphasis added):

The Act provides that, where an impairment is subject to treatment or correction, the impairment is to be treated as having a substantial adverse effect if, but for the treatment or correction, the impairment is likely to have that effect. In this context, ‘likely’ should be interpreted as meaning ‘could well happen’. The practical effect of this provision is that the impairment should be treated as having the effect that it would have without the measures in question (Sch1, Para 5(1)). The Act states that the treatment or correction measures which are to be disregarded for these purposes include, in particular, medical treatment and the use of a prosthesis or other aid (Sch1, Para 5(2)). In this context, medical treatments would include treatments such as counselling, the need to follow a particular diet, and therapies, in addition to treatments with drugs.

On the basis of that guidance the Tribunal determined at a preliminary hearing that the claimant’s avoidance of sugary drinks was “a particular diet” and, therefore, that the claimant was disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. However, the claimant was to lose the substantive hearing, and no appeal against that finding was made.   In the appeal judgement (which concerned only the statutory definition of disability) the judge disagreed; at paragraph 11 it was found that “abstaining from sugary drinks is sufficient to amount to a particular diet which therefore does not amount to treatment or correction.”

In coming to that view reference was also made to B7 of the statutory guidance, which states that a person may not be at impaired from carrying out normal day to day activities if they can reasonably amend their behaviour to avoid the impairment:

Account should be taken of how far a person can reasonably be expected to modify his or her behaviour, for example by use of a coping or avoidance strategy, to prevent or reduce the effects of an impairment on normal day-to-day activities. In some instances, a coping or avoidance strategy might alter the effects of the impairment to the extent that they are no longer substantial and the person would no longer meet the definition of disability. In other instances, even with the coping or avoidance strategy, there is still an adverse effect on the carrying out of normal day-to-day activities.

For example, a person who needs to avoid certain substances because of allergies may find the day-to-day activity of eating substantially affected. Account should be taken of the degree to which a person can reasonably be expected to behave in such a way that the impairment ceases to have a substantial adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

In applying this paragraph the EAT also found (in addition to the finding that avoidance was not a particular diet that avoiding drinks such as Coca-Cola and Fruit Juices was a reasonable modification and that the normal day to day activity of eating and drinking did not have a substantial affect was not substantially affected (although how this was done without any regard to the personal circumstances of the (debarred) claimant I do not know. If you were a teetotal and unable to drink either a Coke or a Orange Juice because of Diabetes that does not leave much choice of liquid refreshment on an evening out! The effect of the avoidance may therefore be substantial, but this was ignored in the judgement.

Unfortunately, in Metroline there no opportunity for the Respondent (the claimant in the case) to put forward legal arguments and neither were there any representations (by the EHRC for example) made and so we are left with quite an unhelpful judgement. It seems a perverse decision to say avoidance of a particular very commonly consumed foodgroup is not “a particular diet” as the EAT said here; that would still leave the question of whether normal day to day activities were affected because avoidance was a reasonable modification which would be particular to the case in hand (but in the event was not considered).

Still, the judgement does throw into light the difficult question of what is reasonable modification; it is one I think there is very little guidance on for reps. It is also one prone for abuse by employers.  When making disability related complaints, particularly with conditions like diabetes, social anxiety, and stammering it would be worthwhile to spend a few moments considering whether there are modifications employers are likely to argue would be reasonable.