Lawyer fired after cancer treatment leave was wrongfully fired

“In addition, we have recent first-hand experience of an employment tribunal”

A law firm unfairly fired a lawyer who took time off work following cancer treatment, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Elona Onibere had been a housing lawyer with Rodman Pearce Solicitors in Luton since 2014. She fell ill in February 2019 and went on leave, and was later diagnosed with a cancerous tumour.

A clause in Onibere’s contract stipulated that the company could dismiss her, with one month’s notice, if she was absent for more than 26 weeks a year, due to incapacity.

Company owner Ademola Akilo claimed to have written to Onibere on July 29, stating that due to his inability to return to work due to illness, he was giving him a month’s notice. However, Onibere denied having received the letter on that date. The court found that Akilo did not send the notification letter to Onibere until September 12, as an email attachment; nearly two weeks after the company fired the lawyer.

Onibere appealed to the company for his dismissal, but the company did not hold a hearing.

Onibere’s cancer diagnosis meant she was a disabled person within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. She filed a complaint of direct disability-related discrimination, which the court dismissed. However, the court found that Onibere had been discriminated against because she had been sacked without consultation or exploration of possible alternatives.

Akilo told the court he did not realize at the time that Onibere was disabled under the Equality Act. He acknowledged that in hindsight he should have taken the advice of an employment specialist and he apologized to Onibere for “any distress he may have caused”.

The court said Rodman Pearce Solicitors could have validly terminated Onibere’s employment, had he followed the correct procedures. The company’s housing department, where Onibere worked, was operating at a loss in 2019 and was being closed. The company could have entered into meaningful consultation with Onibere to discuss her health and specifically point out that there was no role for her on the housing team upon her return.

But the court said Rodman Pearce’s failures were ‘substantial’ and not just procedural, pointing out that the firm only sent the notice letter to Onibere after firing her and did not grant her appeal hearing.

The court will hold an appeal hearing in April.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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