Employers are expected to obtain medical reports in a number of situations, often involving absence – sometimes it’s about poor performance or some form of misconduct. In a recent case the Employer obtained a medical report to ascertain whether an employee had a disability.
In a worrying decision, the Court of Appeal has ruled that an employee may be disabled even though a report from Occupational Health stated that in their opinion, the employee was not disabled.
The case involved a council worker allegedly suffering from a stress related condition – one of the more problematic reasons for absence. The Employer obtained a couple of reports from an external Occupational Health (OH) provider which clearly stated that the employee was not covered by the (then) Disability Discrimination Act. This is now covered by the Equality Act.
So far so good…..
The man had had a number of absences from work, due to stress, often falling ill again soon after returning to work. It was accepted that his stress was work related.
He was eventually dismissed for misconduct following a period of suspension over bullying allegations, and brought various claims to Tribunal, including unfair dismissal, disability discrimination and a failure to make reasonable adjustments.
The Council argued, based on the medical reports, that the man did not have a disability; and therefore, amongst other things, they were not under a duty to make any “reasonable adjustments”.
The Employment Tribunal and The Employment Appeal Tribunal found in favour of the Employer, stating that they were entitled to rely on the content of the independent medical report – which probably reflects what most Employers would have done in the same situation.
However unfortunately for the Employer in this case (and for Employers generally I suggest), The Court of Appeal disagreed and sent the case back for rehearing in Tribunal.
The Appeal Court considered the OH report to be “threadbare”, with no reasoning provided to support its decision. The Court advised Employers to form their own opinion and not to merely follow OH advice without question.
This is a tough decision to be honest! The Employer was essentially criticised for blindly following independent medical advice.
Guidance Note. Employers sometimes have to make a management decision based on medical information. It is not the Medical Advisors role to make the decision, only to offer advice. Management has to take responsibility for the final decision. In view of this decision, Employers should still obtain Medical advice first, but then objectively review it before making a decision – particularly if that decision is to dismiss the employee.
It would now also be advisable to ask OH to justify their opinion, particularly when dealing with a suspected disability, which has a statutory rather than a medical definition.
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