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Are paranoid delusions a disability?

Napthens - November 2nd 2020

Sullivan v Bury Street Capital Ltd

Under the Equality action 2010 a person is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities. In Sullivan v Bury Street Capital Limited the question before the Tribunal was whether an employee who suffered paranoid delusions would fall within definition for the purposes of making a claim for disability discrimination.

Case Facts

In 2013 Mr Sullivan, a sales executive with a small finance company, began to suffer paranoid delusions that a group of Russian gangsters were out to get him following the breakup of his relationship with a Ukrainian woman.  The delusions caused Mr Sullivan to have difficulty sleeping, affected his attendance and his behaviour at work became erratic. However, these issues had already been a matter of concern prior to suffering from paranoid delusions. Mr Sullivan’s Chief Executive found out about the paranoid delusions some months later in July 2013.

Mr Sullivan’s condition improved after September 2013; however Mr Sullivan’s timekeeping issues, lateness and poor attitude to work continued to be an issue in the subsequent years. In April 2017 Mr Sullivan’s paranoid delusions reoccurred and his ability to conduct his day-to-day activities began to deteriorate. In September 2017 Mr Sullivan was dismissed for poor timekeeping, unauthorised absences and lack of record-keeping. Mr Sullivan claimed disability discrimination.

The Employment Tribunal held that Mr Sullivan was not disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act. The Tribunal found that any substantial adverse effect lasted only from around May 2013 to September 2013, and then recommenced in April 2017 - but there was no substantial adverse effect during the period in between. Mr Sullivan appealed the decision.

EAT Decision

The Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld the decision of the Employment Tribunal and dismissed Mr Sullivan’s appeal. The EAT concluded that although Mr Sullivan suffered paranoid delusions in May 2013 and again in 2017, it was determined that the substantial effect caused by his condition was not classed as ‘long-term’ as it had not lasted beyond September 2013 and was unlikely to reoccur. In addition, it was held that during this time the paranoid delusions no longer had the relevant affect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The EAT concluded that it was irrelevant that the employee's condition did in fact recur in 2017. What mattered was that in 2013, when the condition first occurred, it was not considered likely to occur again. The EAT held the ET was correct to make its assessment on the basis of the condition prevailing at the time and the fact it did recur was not sufficient to satisfy the definition of disability.

Summary

The case highlights how careful employers need to be when dismissing for disability-related issue and a reminder that the decision of the Tribunals remain fact dependent.

It is important that employers are fully aware of the law surrounding disabilities in order to reduce the risk of discrimination claims. Should a concern arise regarding a disability the employer should ensure to follow the correct procedure and manage the illness appropriately. In addition, the employer should consider whether or not is suitable to obtain medical evidence in order to ascertain the employee’s illness and look to take action, such as making reasonable adjustments to prevent any discrimination.

For support with any of the issues discussed in this update, please contact the employment team