Equality Tribunal awards €80k to employee subjected to discriminatory treatment. The former employee (the complainant) in this case commenced employment with her employer (the respondent) in 2003 – She was appointed Financial Controller in 2007 and her employment ended in February 2011. She referred a complaint under the Employment Equality Acts, 1998-2008 to the Equality Tribunal on 12 July, 2011.
The respondent, who had gone into liquidation by the time the Hearing took place in December, 2013 did not attend the Hearing. The liquidator, who received adequate notice of the Hearing, chose not to attend either. The Hearing proceeded in their absence and the complainant built a case against her former employer in front of Equality Officer, Vivian Jackson.
According to the complainant’s uncontested evidence, she informed her employer that she was expecting her third child in November 2009. She alleged that her employer’s attitude towards, and treatment of, her worsened from this point. She had had a miscarriage in the summer of 2009 and, according to the complainant (Ms. M), her employer (Mr. W) responded to her November pregnancy news with the comment “Jesus Lisa, you don’t hang around”. The complainant gave evidence that a few weeks after this comment her employer again referenced her pregnancy but this time it was in front of clients and his comment shocked her. The complainant gave evidence that Mr. W implied to the clients that he was not happy that she was pregnant and stated that ‘she was meant to stop after two’. The complainant described an incident in January 2010 where she was involved in a car accident. She claimed that a doctor certified her as unfit for work for a week in order to ensure that she and her unborn baby were unharmed. Even though she did not have access to a vehicle for the period, the respondent told her that she was required to attend work the following Monday. Ms. M complied with her employer’s request because she was fearful of losing her job. In February 2010, Ms. M requested a meeting in order to discuss cover during her maternity leave – this was due to begin at the end of April 2010. Mr. W agreed to hire an employee during the period that Ms. M was due to be on her protected leave. The complainant was under the impression that the new hire would begin work on a fixed term contract, however, during the course of the interview the successful applicant, Ms. S, asked about the duration of the contract and, to the complainant’s surprise, Mr. W said that he was ‘not sure that Lisa will be coming back to work’. The complainant said that she had never implied that she would not return to work and, in fact, not returning was ‘undesirable from a personal and professional point of view and impossible from a financial perspective’. The complainant gave evidence that the respondent ‘froze her out’ – he undermined her with clients and changed arrangements regularly. He also began removing tasks from the complainant. Ms. M believes that this occurred because her employer no longer felt that, with three children, she would be committed to the company. The complainant demonstrated times where she had shown considerable commitment to the company in the past and said that the employer had no reason to believe that her commitment would diminish. The complainant sought a meeting with Mr. W prior to her leaving for her maternity leave – she wanted to discuss her remuneration and benefits during the leave. In the past, the employee had been allowed to keep her company phone and car during the leave and the employer also topped up her state maternity benefit so she continued to receive her normal monthly net income throughout her maternity leave. This time it was different – Mr. W only offered the complainant a top-up payment of €150 per month – far less than what was offered during previous leave periods. Ms. M accepted this. To her surprise, Ms. M was obliged to return her company car and phone for the duration of her leave on this occasion. Ms. M was due to complete her maternity leave at the end of January 2011 and in December 2010 she contacted her employer to give notice of her intention to return to work. She did not receive a response to this e-mail and so she e-mailed Ms. S, who had been hired to cover the period of maternity leave. Ms. S confirmed that Mr. W had received the complainant’s e-mail. Ms. S sent another e-mail on 6th January 2011 requesting that Ms. M attend a meeting with Mr. W on 14th January. At this meeting, Ms M was notified that her role of Financial Controller no longer existed in its previous format within the new company structure. Ms M was informed that the role was redundant and that another position was available to her as an alternative. The new position was a more junior role that not only incorporated additional hours but also a 40% reduction in pay. Ms M was not satisfied with this – she found it to be an unacceptable alternative to the Financial Controller role and demonstrated that her original role was not in fact redundant as MS. S continued to perform Ms. M’s original duties and was listed as the company’s Financial Controller on the company website. The complainant researched her position in light of the new role that her employer offered her as an alternative and realised that she was not obliged to accept the offer. The respondent offered Ms. M her original terms and conditions (including rate of pay and hours), however, the role that she was being asked to perform going forward was a clear demotion and a serious reduction in responsibility. She requested to return to her role as Financial Controller. Again it was expressed by the respondent that this role was redundant and he offered her 14 days to decide whether or not to take the new role of ‘Credit Control Manager’. Ms. M said that she was only happy to return to her original role and stated why the new offer was unacceptable in light of the fact that her original role clearly still existed. Mr. W wrote to Ms. M a number of days later rejecting her arguments and adding that, as she had not reported for duty, he considered her to have resigned. Vivian Jackson, Equality Officer, found that Ms. M had been subjected to a range of unlawful treatments. Her employer made it impossible for her to proceed wither pre maternity leave role and essentially dismissed her. The Equality Officer ordered that the respondent pay the complainant €80,000.00 in compensation for the discrimination inflicted on her.