We start off the new year with a Court of Appeal decision on whether a worker who declined to go back to work for fear of COVID-19 was unfairly dismissed or not, the first of its kind at this level. We also take a look at two discrimination cases, a Court of Justice of the European Union case about requirements on employers to provide ‘special corrective appliances’ (such as glasses), and a claim for misuse of private information concerning the reasonable expectation of privacy in private WhatsApp messages.
- COVID-19: First Court of Appeal decision on the application of ERA 1996, s.100(1)(d) to COVID-19 dismissals
- Discrimination: Whether PCP requiring disabled employee to work full-time had been applied, despite employer having part-time roles
- Discrimination: Narrow test for marital status discrimination confirmed
- Health & Safety at Work: Display screen equipment and the provision of spectacles by employers
- Data Protection: Misuse of private information and abuse of process
COVID-19: First Court of Appeal decision on the application of ERA 1996, s.100(1)(d) to COVID-19 dismissals
In Rodgers v Leeds Laser Cutting  EWCA Civ 1659, the claimant worked for the respondent as a laser operative in a large warehouse-type space about the size of half a football pitch in which usually only five people would be working. Following the first national ‘lockdown’ on 23 March 2020, the respondent told employees that the business would remain open, asked staff to work as normally as possible and stated ‘we are putting measures in place to allow us to work as normal’. Recommendations were made by an external risk assessment covering most of the things which were already in place before it was undertaken. The claimant left work as usual on 27 March 2020, having not made any complaint about his conditions at work. He obtained a self-isolation note until 3 April 2020 due to having a cough. On 29 March 2020, the claimant told his line manager he had to self-isolate because one child was high risk with sicklecell and a 7 month old baby. His manager agreed. Unfortunately, during this period he drove a friend who had broken his leg to hospital and at some point worked in a pub during the lockdown. On 24 April 2020 he found out he’d been dismissed and was sent his P45.
The claimant made a claim for unfair dismissal on the grounds of health and safety. Under the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA 1996), s.100(1)(d), any dismissal of an employee will be automatically unfair, if the reason (or, if more than one, the principal reason) for the dismissal is that, in circumstances of danger which the worker/employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which they could not reasonably have been expected to avert, the employee:
- left or proposed to leave, or
- (while the danger persisted) refused to return to
their place of work or any dangerous part of their place of work. ‘Dangers’ in this context are not limited to dangers arising out of the workplace itself, but also cover dangers caused by the behaviour of fellow employees.
The questions that the employment tribunal has to decide in a case under ERA 1996, s.100(1)(d) are:
- Did the employee believe that there were circumstances of serious and imminent danger at the workplace? If so:
- Was that belief reasonable? If so:
- Could they reasonably have averted that danger? If not:
- Did they leave, or propose to leave or refuse to return to, the workplace, or the relevant part, because of the (perceived) serious and imminent danger? If so:
- Was that the reason (or principal reason) for the dismissal?
The tribunal rejected the claim for a number of reasons, including that his evidence was inconsistent, his beliefs of serious imminent danger were not supported by his actions (driving his friend to hospital and working in a pub) and not related to his workplace but to the world at large, he had made no complaint about his specific working conditions, and the measures put in place by the employer (if followed) would make the business as safe as possible from infection.
The claimant appealed, arguing that the tribunal had erred in law by concluding that because his belief was one of a serious and imminent danger at large (i.e. in the whole community), his belief that his workplace presented a serious and imminent danger was not objectively reasonable. The Court of Appeal, like the EAT before it, dismissed the appeal because the claimant’s case failed on its own facts. While the coronavirus pandemic could, in principle, give rise to circumstances of danger that an employee could reasonably believe to be serious and imminent, this was not the situation in this particular claimant’s case in respect of his workplace.
The Court of Appeal has confirmed that, on the particular facts of this case, where the employee refused to return to work during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in circumstances where the employer had put in place social distancing in the workplace and other measures like handwashing and face masks, the employment tribunal did not err in law in concluding that the claimant had not reasonably believed that there were circumstances of danger which were serious and imminent, or which could not be reasonably averted, and as result the dismissal was not automatically unfair under section 100(1)(d) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA 1996).
Guidance was given on the interpretation of ERA 1996, s 100(1)(d) including that:
- it is sufficient that the employee had a (reasonable) belief in the existence of the danger as well as in its seriousness and imminence. They do not also have to prove that objectively such circumstances of danger did in fact exist;
- the subsection does not apply where the perceived danger arose on the employee’s journey to work. The perceived danger must arise at the workplace. However it does not follow that the danger need be present only at the workplace;
- while the paradigm case under ERA 1996, s 100 (1)(d) is where a danger arises by reason of some problem with the premises or equipment, there is nothing about the risk of employees infecting each other with a disease that takes it outside the scope of the subsection: the tribunal will have to decide whether on the particular facts of each case it amounts to a serious and imminent danger.
While the outcome of this case ultimately turned on its own particular facts, the judgment is nonetheless of interest because it is the first appeal to reach the Court of Appeal on the application of ERA 1996, s 100(1) to dismissals related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Discrimination: Whether PCP requiring disabled employee to work full-time had been applied, despite employer having part-time roles
In Davies v EE Ltd  EAT 191, the EAT considered what amounted to a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) for the purposes of a disability discrimination claim relating to an alleged failure to make reasonable adjustments.
The employee, who was employed full-time, relied on two PCPs, which she contended had left her at a substantial disadvantage: (i) a requirement for employees to complete a full-time working pattern of 40 hours per week, with each shift approximately 9½ hours in length, and (ii) a requirement for employees to complete the shifts without agreeing any reduction in hours. The employment tribunal held that because the respondent employed some employees on a part-time basis and had allowed the claimant a phased return to work, neither PCP had been made out on the facts.
The EAT held that the tribunal had erred in law in concluding that the fact that the employer had other staff who worked part-time had meant that a PCP of requiring the employee to work her contracted hours of 40 per week had not been applied to her. Also, the fact that a temporary adjustment had been made during the employee’s phased return to work did not mean that the PCP had ceased to exist.
Discrimination: Narrow test for marital status discrimination confirmed
In Ellis v Bacon  EAT 188, the EAT considered a matter of two married director/shareholders whose messy divorce impacted the divorcing wife’s income from the company. Another director, Mr Ellis, sided with the husband, Mr Bacon, in relation to the marital dispute and was compliant with him in removing the Mrs Bacon’s directorship, not paying her dividends, reporting her to the police and suspending and dismissing her on spurious grounds. The employment tribunal held that these actions involved less favourable treatment by Mr Ellis against Mrs Bacon because of her marital status as a wife to Mr Bacon. Mr Ellis appealed.
The EAT held that in a claim of direct discrimination because of the protected characteristic of marriage, the employment tribunal must consider whether it was the claimant’s marital status which was the cause of the less favourable treatment and not the fact that they were married to a particular person. Further, an appropriate hypothetical comparator is someone in a close relationship but not married, and the tribunal must consider whether such a person would have been treated differently.
A person directly discriminates against another person where they treat them less favourably than they treat or would treat others, and they do so because of a protected characteristic. Marriage and civil partnership are protected characteristics. A person has the protected characteristic of marriage if the person is married (which includes a person who is married to a person of the same sex); of civil partnership if the person is a civil partner. Note that people who are not married, or not civil partners, do not have this protected characteristic.
Cases on discrimination because of marriage are very rare. This judgment confirms that the test is to be narrowly construed, with the causative reason for the less favourable treatment being the marital status and not:
- the identity of the spouse, or
- the closeness of the relationship.
As a result, there seems very limited scope for claimants to bring successful claims in the context of modern society and the legal concept of protection on grounds of marital status looks increasingly like an outdated concept.
Health & Safety at Work: Display screen equipment and the provision of spectacles by employers
In TJ v Inspectoratul General pentru Imigrări, C-392/21, the Court of Justice of the European Union held that Article 9 of Council Directive 90/270/EEC, on the minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment, which is implemented in the UK by regulation 5 of the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, must be interpreted as follows:
- there is no requirement for a causal link between display screen work and potential visual difficulties;
- ‘special corrective appliances’ include spectacles aimed specifically at the correction and prevention of visual difficulties relating to work involving display screen equipment;
- those ‘special corrective appliances’ are not limited to appliances used exclusively for professional purposes, i.e. they may be used at other times too; and
- the employer’s obligation to provide the workers concerned with a special corrective appliance may be met by the direct provision of the appliance to the worker by the employer or by reimbursement of the necessary expenses incurred by the worker, but not by the payment of a general salary supplement to the worker.
Data Protection: Misuse of private information and abuse of process
In FKJ v RVT  EWHC 3 (KB), which concerned a claim for misuse of private information, the court considered the extent to which there can be a reasonable expectation of privacy in private WhatsApp messages found at work, and how such material should be dealt with in the context of ongoing legal proceedings. FKJ brought a claim in the employment tribunal against her former employers on the grounds of sex discrimination, unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal, amid allegations of sexual harassment by the first defendant, RVT. FKJ lost that employment tribunal claim, in large part due to evidence deployed by RVT which consisted of some 18,000 of FKJ’s private WhatsApp messages. Prior to that tribunal hearing, the defendants had come to be in possession of a complete log of messages exchanged between FKJ and both her partner and her best friend, some of which were ‘of the most intimate kind’. FKJ brought a claim for misuse of private information.
While there was some dispute over how RVT came to be in possession of these messages, spanning a period of two years, FKJ only became aware of them being in his possession when she received the defendants’ grounds of resistance in the employment tribunal proceedings. FKJ chose not to seek exclusion of those messages from evidence, or to seek aggravated damages as a result of RVT’s conduct. Instead, FKJ chose to pursue a claim for misuse of private information in the High Court.
RKJ brought a counter claim grounded in the common law torts of malicious prosecution and abuse of process, and harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. RVT also sought to strike out the claim and seek summary judgment on his counterclaim. As a fall back, the defendants sought payment of significant sums into court by FKJ as a condition of the proceedings continuing.
The court gave short shrift to the defendants’ applications, reaching the ‘clear conclusion that they are without merit’. Parts of the applications were ‘not worthy of serious consideration’ and appeared to be ‘an attempt to stifle a claim that the defendants would prefer not to contest on its merits’. Both the strike out and summary judgment applications were dismissed.
[Written by Charlotte Clayson, partner at Trowers & Hamlins LLP, for Lexis+.]
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