Paranoid delusions not a disability

court of appeal occupational health news

Paranoid delusions may not be a disability

The Court of Appeal determined last week that an employee who suffered from paranoid delusions did not have a disability.

In the case, an employee at Bury Street Capital began suffering from paranoid delusions in 2013. The employee started believing he was being spied upon by a Russian gang allegedly connected to a former Ukrainian girlfriend.

He installed CCTV at his home, changed his locks and became nervous about using computers and phones. He changed his email address on at least ten occasions. He occasionally booked into hotels, instead of going home at night, because he was so convinced that he was being followed.

The effect on work

A Consultant Psychiatrist found that the feelings were paranoid delusions and were the product of a persistent delusional disorder. The Psychiatrist also found that he had no prior history of mental ill health.

The condition caused problems with the employee’s sleep and social communication. It also adversely affected his timekeeping, attendance and record-keeping at work.

Following treatment, the employee’s condition improved. Between 2014 and 2017 his performance reviews repeatedly mentioned his timekeeping and attitude to work. Crucially, these concerns had also been documented by his employer before he became ill in 2013.

In 2017 the employee become ill again and he was signed off work by a GP. He was then dismissed on the grounds of capability (including poor timekeeping, lack of communication, unauthorised absences and poor record-keeping) shortly afterwards.

The Tribunal

The employee brought a claim for unfair dismissal, disability discrimination, failure to make reasonable adjustments and unlawful deduction of wages. The business defended all the claims. An employment tribunal was held in 2018.

The tribunal found that delusions caused a “substantial adverse effect” (a legal term relevant for defining a disability) on the employee’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities (sleeping and social interactions). However, it also found that the aspects of his performance that had triggered his dismissal (poor timekeeping etc) had been matters of concern for the employer before he became ill.

The claim for unfair dismissal succeeded because it was deemed procedurally unfair. However, the other claims made under the Equality Act 2010 were dismissed. This was because a condition must be serious (have a substantial adverse effect and be long-term) to be defined as a disability. The employee disagreed with the decision and was granted leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal has found that although the employee’s delusions occurred over many years, they had only had the substantial adverse effect during two distinct periods, each lasting a matter of months. The substantial adverse effect was therefore not long term (legally defined as more than 12 months) and the claims did not succeed.

At the heart of the decision is whether the impact of the delusions was such that at the relevant times it constituted a disability. The employee was found to have had no prior history of mental ill health, so it was not deemed to be a pre-existing condition. Although the employee was very seriously ill, on two occasions, it was not deemed to be long term.

The decision shows how far an employee may need to go to show they are, in fact, disabled. Whilst a condition may well occur again in the future, it is not always guaranteed to be the case, which is the view the Courts have taken in the decision.

The decision highlights that the final say on whether a condition is a disability or not always rests with the Courts. Both the employer and the employee had taken medical advice leading up to the dismissal, yet it is only the Courts that can decide whether someone is disabled or not.

That, in turn, is why occupational health clinicians usually advise on the possibility that a condition is a disability (e.g. ‘likely’, ‘may be’, ‘unlikely’), because in the last recourse it is always a legal decision. There are, however, some conditions which are automatically defined as disabilities (e.g. MS, HIV, visual impairment etc).

Tips for HR and Managers

The case highlights the importance of recording performance concerns with employees at the time they arise and keeping detailed records.

Without being able to show that the performance concerns existed before the employee became ill, it is possible the Tribunal could have reached a different conclusion.

It is also important to note that the case shows Tribunals and Courts will always assess cases on their specific facts. Depending on how long the condition may last, as well as their severity, paranoid delusions could well be found to be a disability in another claim.

Given the complexities of how the law may be interpreted by Tribunals and the Court of Appeal, it is always essential to seek professional advice at the earliest opportunity.

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