Employment Law Case Update – March 2024

This month’s case updates include a case of unfair dismissal which sparked a debate over the bounds of reasonable responses of an employer in dismissing an employee for posting a racist ‘joke’ on an intranet, we scrutinize parental leave protection against dismissal, look at whether employers can be held vicariously liable for detriments amounting to dismissal caused by co-workers in whistleblowing cases, and take a look at the potential discrimination of a Christian actor removed from a role due to anti-gay social media posts, although she admitted she would never had played that role anyway. Lastly, looking at Equal Pay, we investigate the ‘material factor defence’.

  • Unfair Dismissal: Band of Reasonable responses
  • Parental Leave: Protection against dismissal can arise before employee gives notice to take parental leave
  • Whistleblowing: Employer cannot be vicariously liable for detriment caused by act of co-worker which amounts to dismissal
  • Discrimination: Fired ‘Color Purple ‘actor loses appeal over Christian beliefs
  • Equal Pay: Identification of decision-maker is not essential to material factor defence 

Unfair Dismissal: Band of Reasonable responses

In Vaultex UK Ltd v Bialas [2024] EAT 19 the question before the EAT was whether the original tribunal had been entitled to decide that a decision to dismiss an employee for posting a racist ‘joke’ on his employer’s intranet fell outside the band of reasonable responses.

The Claimant posted a racist joke on the Respondent’s intranet, which was used by all its employees. The Respondent was a large company which conducts cash processing. The Claimant had a long, unblemished service record and apologised for his actions but nonetheless, the Respondent decided to dismiss the Claimant for gross misconduct.

The tribunal held that the Claimant had been unfairly dismissed, and had even directed itself, citing pertinent authority, that, in relation to sanction, a band of reasonable responses approach should be applied, and that the tribunal “must not simply substitute its judgment for that of the employer in this case”. The tribunal concluded that, given the Claimant’s record and the fact he had apologised, any sanction above a final written warning fell outside the band of reasonable responses that a reasonable employer could have reached.

The Respondent appealed. The first ground of the appeal was the assertion that the tribunal nevertheless committed the error of substituting its own opinion of the appropriate sanction for that of the Respondent. The second ground was that, on the question of whether the sanction of dismissal was within the band of reasonable responses, the tribunal reached a conclusion which was perverse or not within the range of reasonable decisions open to it.

The EAT found that this was not a case where the tribunal found that there was unfairness because a relevant circumstance was not considered by the employer at all. To the contrary, the tribunal specifically found that the Claimant’s long service and the fact that this was a first offence were taken into account by the Respondent. Secondly, given that the tribunal found that the Respondent’s policies and procedures made it clear that conduct of this sort was considered to be potentially so serious that it could result in dismissal for a first offence, and, indeed, that they explained that, even if not directed at another employee, such conduct might amount to discriminatory harassment of colleagues exposed to it, and that this post was placed on an intranet used by the entire workforce, they did not find that it was reasonably open to the tribunal to conclude, if it did, that the Claimant’s prior clean record of long service meant that dismissal was outside of the reasonable band of responses.

The EAT therefore held that the tribunal had, in fact, substituted its own view for that of the Respondent and upheld both grounds of appeal. The EAT concluded that “any tribunal properly applying the law could not have concluded other than that dismissal, however harsh the tribunal might think the decision, was within the band of reasonable responses open to the employer in this case“. It held that the response was within the band of reasonable responses and therefore substituted a finding of fair dismissal.

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Parental Leave: Protection against dismissal can arise before employee gives notice to take parental leave

In Hilton Foods Solutions Ltd v Wright [2024] EAT 28 the EAT had to consider how protection from dismissal arises regarding parental leave. An employee is protected against being dismissed because s/he took parental leave. In broad terms, an employee is also protected if s/he ‘sought’ to take parental leave, pursuant to regulation 20 of the Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999 (MAPLE Regs), SI 1999/3312. His Honour Judge Tayler noted that this appeal raises one point of construction; what is required for an employee to have ‘sought’ to take parental leave? The Respondent argued that the employee must have complied with certain formal requirements of the MAPLE Regs that are a prerequisite of exercising the right to take parental leave. The Claimant (Mr Wright) argued that whether an employee has sought to take parental leave is a question of fact for the appreciation of the Employment Tribunal having considered all the relevant evidence.

The EAT held that the use of the word ‘sought’ was of an ordinary English construction and therefore the question of whether an employee has ‘sought’ to take parental leave for the purposes of this regulation 20 should be based on a factual determination made by the employment tribunal having considered the relevant evidence and circumstances. In addition, it concluded that there is no absolute requirement that the employee must have given notice to take parental leave pursuant to paragraphs 1(b) and 3 of MAPLE Regs, Schedule 2.

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Whistleblowing: Employer cannot be vicariously liable for detriment caused by act of co-worker which amounts to dismissal

In Wicked Vision Ltd v Rice [2024] EAT 29, the Claimant brought a claim of automatic unfair dismissal against the Respondent on the basis that he was dismissed because he had made protected disclosures. The Claimant later tried to amend his claim, to add that the act of the dismissing officer in dismissing him was a detriment on grounds of whistleblowing for which the Respondent was liable. The tribunal allowed the amendment.

At appeal, the EAT disagreed with the tribunal and held that:

  • a claimant cannot claim that their employer (a company) is vicariously liable under section 47B(1B) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA 1996) for the act of a co-worker (in this case the company’s owner) for the ‘detriment of dismissal’; and
  • such a claim is barred by ERA 1996, s 47B(2) because the alleged detriment ‘amounts to dismissal (within the meaning of Part X)’ of ERA 1996.

Therefore the correct claim was the one originally made by the Claimant.

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Discrimination: Fired ‘Color Purple’ actor loses appeal over Christian beliefs

In Omooba v (1) Michael Garrett Associates Ltd (ta Global Artists) (2) Leicester Theatre Ltd [2024] EAT 30 the EAT held that a theatre company did not discriminate against a Christian actor when it dropped her from a role in a musical production of ‘The Color Purple’ over an anti-gay social media post.

The Claimant was an actor, cast to play the role of Celie in the stage production of ‘The Color Purple’. Celie is seen as an iconic lesbian role and, when the claimant’s casting was announced, a social media storm developed relating to a past Facebook post in which she had expressed her belief that homosexuality was a sin. The consequences of that storm led to the termination of the Claimant’s contracts with the theatre (the Second Respondent) and her agency (the First Respondent). Arising out of those events, she brought Employment Tribunal (“ET”) claims of religion and belief discrimination and harassment, and breach of contract. Shortly before the ET hearing, having only then read the script, the Claimant volunteered she would never in fact have played the part of Celie, and would have resigned from the role in due course. She continued with her claims, but these were all dismissed and an award of costs made against her.

The Claimant appealed against those decisions, and against a further order relating to the continued use of the hearing documents. The Respondents cross-appealed the ET’s finding that the Claimant had suffered detrimental treatment, its failure to find that there was an occupational requirement that the actor playing Celie had not manifested a belief such as that expressed in the Claimant’s Facebook post, and its failure to find that keeping the Claimant on the books of the agency would effectively have amounted to compelled speech.

The EAT dismissed the appeals. Although, contrary to the Respondents’ first ground of cross-appeal, it had been open to the ET to find that the Claimant had suffered detrimental treatment, it had not fallen into the error of confusing reason and motive but had permissibly found that, whilst the Claimant’s belief formed part of the context, it was not a reason for either her dismissal by the theatre or the termination of her agency contract. In the circumstances, it was unnecessary to rule on the occupational requirement or compelled speech arguments. As for the harassment claim, the ET had not failed to have regard to the impact on the Claimant of the social medial storm (the “other circumstances” for the purposes of section 26(4)(b) Equality Act 2010), but had found that the Respondents had not caused, or contributed to, that circumstance, and permissibly found that the Claimant’s treatment had not reasonably had the requisite effect.

The ET had also been entitled to reject the Claimant’s argument that any breach of ECHR rights would amount to a “violation of dignity”; that argument was academic, as the ET had not found that any of the Claimant’s ECHR rights had been infringed. The ET had also been correct to dismiss the Claimant’s breach of contract claim against the Second Respondent. She had been offered the full contract fee, so there was no pecuniary loss. Moreover, as the Claimant knew she would not play a lesbian character, but had not raised this with the theatre, or sought to inform herself as to the requirements of the role of Celie, she was in repudiatory breach of her express obligations, and of the implied term of trust and confidence. Although the Second Respondent was not aware of this at the date of termination, no damages (e.g. for loss of publicity/enhanced reputation) could be due.

In making a costs award against the Claimant, the ET had been entitled to reach the conclusion that her claims either had no reasonable prospect of success from the outset, or that they had no reasonable prospect once the Claimant realised that she would never in fact have played the role of Celie, or that the conduct of the claims had been unreasonable; as such it had permissibly found the threshold for a costs award was met. As for the Claimant’s objection to the amount of the award (the entirety of the Respondents’ costs, subject to detailed assessment), the ET: (i) was entitled to find that the change in the Claimant’s case had an effect on the entire proceedings, and (ii) had drawn inferences that were open to it on its findings as to the conduct of the Claimant’s case, such that it had permissibly taken into account the resources of those who had supported the litigation for their own purposes. As for the order restricting the future publication of all hearing documents, that had been a decision open to the ET under its powers of case management. It had had due regard to the open justice principle and been entitled to exercise its discretion in the way that it had.

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Equal Pay: Identification of decision-maker is not essential to material factor defence

In Scottish Water v Edgar [2024] EAT 32, the Claimant brought an equal pay claim under the Equality Act, 2010. Her comparator was a male employee with the same job title and within the same pay band who had been appointed after her. The Appellant raised a ‘material factor defence’ (i.e. the employer is able to give a genuine reason for the difference in pay between the Claimant and their comparator that is not related to gender) that the difference in pay was due to the comparator’s superior skills, experience and potential. The Appellant led evidence about discussions within its organisation about those matters and about the resultant level of salary ultimately offered to the comparator at the time of his appointment. It also sought to lead comparative evidence of the Claimant’s skills, experience and potential both at the time of and after his appointment.

The Employment Tribunal (ET) directed itself that the Appellant required to prove the identity of the pay decision-maker at the point in time when the comparator was engaged. It concluded that the Appellant had not done so, and that the material factor defence accordingly failed. It also directed itself that comparative evidence of the respective skills, experience and potential of the Claimant and the comparator in a period of time after the comparator’s appointment was irrelevant.

The EAT held that:

  • an employer does not need to prove the identity of the decision-maker in order to establish a material factor defence to an equal pay claim, and
  • comparative evidence of the respective skills and abilities of the claimant and the comparator from a period in time after the comparator’s appointment is not necessarily irrelevant to the employer’s defence, according to the EAT.

The ET’s judgment was set aside and the preliminary issue was remitted to a differently constituted tribunal. It was observed that the primary purpose of the reasons section of any decision of an ET should be to explain to the parties clearly and concisely why the tribunal reached its decision.

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Further Information:

If you would like any additional information, please contact Anne-Marie Pavitt or Sophie Banks on: hello@dixcartuk.com

The information provided within this document is for general informational purposes only. While every effort has been made to ensure its accuracy, no responsibility can be accepted for inaccuracies. Readers are advised that laws and practices may change over time. This document is provided solely for informational purposes and does not constitute accounting, legal, or tax advice. Professional advice should be sought before making any decisions based on the contents of this document.