Employment Law Case Update – November 2023

This month’s case law shines a light on a less-common area of worker status – where a partnership is providing a service to a company and how to ensure no employee relationship is found, and provides a useful insight into using comparators for discrimination claims.

Worker Status: Individual providing services through genuine partnership cannot be an employee

In Anglian Windows Ltd t/a Anglian Home Improvements v Webb [2023] EAT 138 the EAT held that if there is an agreement between a genuine partnership and an employer for the partnership to provide certain services, then, providing that the arrangement is not a sham, there cannot also be an employment relationship between the individual partner providing those services and the employer, and, accordingly that partner cannot bring a claim of unfair dismissal against the employer (because they do not have the necessary status of being an employee).

This judgment concerns the unusual situation of a partnership entering into an agreement with a company for one of its partners to perform a sales role and then that individual partner trying to claim that they are an employee of that company in order to claim unfair dismissal.

The claimant and his wife had a partnership trading as Webb Consultants. The claimant was appointed as Area Sales Leader for the respondent but provided services (and was paid) through Webb Consultants. The contract provided that the claimant would not be an employee and would ‘at all times remain either a self-employed sole trader, a limited company or a partnership’. The claimant was dismissed and claimed unfair dismissal. The respondent applied to strike out the claim on the basis that it did not have reasonable prospects of success because the claimant was not an employee.

The employment tribunal refused to strike out the claim on the basis that the fact of these arrangements (which involved a genuine partnership and were not suggested to be a sham) did not preclude the possibility of the claimant being able to establish employee status. In reaching this conclusion, the tribunal sought to distinguish the EAT’s decision in Firthglow Ltd v Descombes and anor UKEAT/0916/03. The respondent appealed.

The EAT disagreed with the tribunal’s finding. The EAT held that the tribunal had erred in seeking to draw a distinction between this case and Descombes, where it had been held that, where the relevant work was being undertaken under an agreement with a partnership, that precluded the possibility of one of the individual partners being able to claim he was an employee. The tribunal ought to have followed Descombes. Although it was open to the EAT not to follow a previous decision at this level, none of the circumstances that might warrant adopting this course of action. Moreover, the agreed facts, confirmed by the tribunal’s own findings, meant that the possibility of the existence of a contract of employment between the claimant and the respondent was precluded in the circumstances of this case. That being so, the claimant’s claim of unfair dismissal could have no reasonable prospect of success and the tribunal ought to have allowed the respondent’s strike out application. Therefore the appeal was allowed, the tribunal’s judgment set aside and a finding substituted that the claimant’s claim must be dismissed as having no reasonable prospect of success.

Although employers might, as a result of this judgment, be tempted to engage people to work for them through a partnership (as a means of avoiding them gaining rights as employees) the fact that the courts and tribunals will look behind any such arrangement to determine whether it is a sham, and not reflecting the true agreement between the parties, should discourage them from doing so in practice.

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Constructive Unfair Dismissal: Incorrect use of hypothetical comparators

In The No. 8 Partnership v Simmons [2023] EAT 140 the claimant pursued claims of constructive unfair dismissal and of direct associative disability discrimination, relating to the respondent’s refusal to grant her time off for her dependent father under section 57A Employment Rights Act 1996. In considering the claim of direct discrimination, the Employment Tribunal constructed hypothetical comparators without first giving the parties the opportunity to give evidence or make submissions on the hypothetical circumstances envisaged. The tribunal also found that the reason for the refusal of section 57A leave was the respondent’s unwarranted misinterpretation of the section and that one of the decision-makers was dismissive of the care that aged parents required. Having found that the respondent had thus discriminated against the claimant, the tribunal concluded that this meant that it had breached the implied term of trust and confidence, which had also been breached by the respondent’s failure to personally communicate with the claimant before reaching any decision. The respondent appealed.

The EAT allowed the appeal. By failing to afford the parties the opportunity to address its hypothetical comparisons (in evidence or submissions), the tribunal had adopted an unfair procedure. The comparators thus constructed were also flawed as they failed to provide a like-for-like comparison for the purposes of section 23 Equality Act 2010 and, in the case of the second case, relied on a comparison with an individual sharing the same protected characteristic as the claimant. Moreover, given its finding as to the respondent’s reason for refusing section 57A leave, it was perverse of the tribunal to conclude that this was because of the claimant’s father’s disability. That conclusion was also perverse given the tribunal’s further finding that one of the respondent’s partners would have treated any carer of an aged parent (regardless of disability) in the same way.

Having allowed the appeal against the finding of discrimination, this also undermined the tribunal’s reasoning on constructive unfair dismissal. The alternative basis for that conclusion was, however, also flawed as the tribunal had failed to apply the correct test when determining whether there had been a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence and had failed to provide an adequate explanation of it finding that a breach arose from a failure of personal communication.

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Race Discrimination: Differentiating comparators

In the direct race discrimination case of Virgin Active Ltd v Hughes [2023] EAT 130, the question before the EAT was whether it was correct for the employment tribunal to consider a colleague who had made a comment about her own race as a valid comparator for a claimant who had made a comment about a colleague’s race.

The claimant in this case was a gym manager who had been dismissed. He had won several claims at the tribunal, including unfair dismissal, automatic and ‘ordinary’ unfair dismissal, and race discrimination concerning the handling of his disciplinary process and a grievance. The respondent appealed on various grounds and succeeded in overturning the findings related to race discrimination.

The tribunal had considered three of the claimant’s colleagues as comparators, even though their situations appeared significantly different from the claimant’s. The tribunal argued that the differences in treatment of these comparators shifted the burden of proof and upheld the complaint.

However, the EAT disagreed with the tribunal’s approach. It pointed out that the tribunal had not adequately assessed whether the claimant’s comparators were indeed suitable comparators, given their differing circumstances. A tribunal should carefully evaluate any material differences between a claimant and a valid comparator. The more significant the differences in their circumstances, the less likely the disparate treatment indicates discrimination. To illustrate this, the EAT provided an example: if two individuals of different races both undergo a job interview and one succeeds while the other does not, this alone wouldn’t be enough to shift the burden of proof. However, if both candidates scored equally in an assessment but were treated differently, that might indeed warrant shifting the burden of proof.

Additionally, the judgment highlighted that delay, on its own, is not sufficient grounds for an appeal. (The judgment had been delayed due to the Employment Tribunal Judge’s serious ill-health.)

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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 data contained within this document is for general information only. No responsibility can be accepted for inaccuracies. Readers are also advised that the law and practice may change from time to time. This document is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute accounting, legal or tax advice. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.