An employment tribunal has ruled that a solicitor was unfairly dismissed and subjected to disability discrimination, after their employment contract was terminated during recovery from cancer.

Ms Onibere, who was employed by Rodman Pearce Solicitors, has been awarded over £17,000 in compensation following the tribunal’s decision earlier this month.

This case demonstrates the critical importance of following redundancy procedures correctly, while offering a stark reminder of the risks associated with indirect disability discrimination.  

Case – Onibere v Rodman Pearce Solicitors

The claimant, Ms Onibere, had struggled to reach new business targets on numerous occasions between 2017 and 2019.

As a result, Onibere had been informed that she may be liable to redundancy, after the overall performance of the firm’s housing department had declined significantly.

Shortly after this, Onibere became absent from work due to illness, later discovering that she had developed a rare type of cancer.

This meant the employee was unable to work for an extended period, during which the employer attempted to seek confirmation of a return date, stating that a one month notice of termination had been activated.

The employer claimed this was on the grounds of capability, as Onibere had been absent due to sickness for 26 weeks within the year.

It later transpired that the employer was unaware of Onibere’s cancer diagnosis, after she responded by claiming for unfair dismissal, indirect disability discrimination, and breach of contract.

Cancer and the Equality Act 2010

Under the Equality Act 2010, anyone diagnosed with cancer is automatically classed as disabled.

This means they are protected against discriminatory treatment, regardless of the impact the condition is having on them at the time.

It should also be noted that the Act makes no distinction between the different types of cancer, instead stating simply that cancer is a disability.

Decision – Unfair dismissal and indirect disability discrimination

After disclosing that they were unaware of Onibere’s cancer diagnosis, the employer accepted that it should have sought employment advice from a specialist, while offering an apology to the employee.

In addition to this, the employer accepted that it should not have terminated the contract without following a proper consultation process with the employee.

When reaching its decision, the employment tribunal noted that following correct procedures would likely have led to dismissal for Onibere, due to the significant decline of the firm’s housing department.

However, the judge indicated that the employers’ values were substantive and not just procedural, resulting in successful claims for indirect disability discrimination and unfair dismissal.

Ms Onibere was also awarded over £17,000 in compensation.

What can employers learn from this?

This case shows that being proactive is crucial to prevent potential employment issues from snowballing further.

As noted by the employer in this case, seeking early advice from an expert can be pivotal in ensuring that you handle matters fairly and in compliance with employment law.

If you make the mistake of seeking advice at too late a stage or not at all, you run the risk of reacting to the matter inappropriately, which could lead to employment tribunal claims against your business.

If you would like to receive tailored guidance on the topics covered in this article, or any other area of employment law, call us today on 0345 076 2288 or complete the form below.