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Are Paranoid Delusions a Disability?


Posted on: Oct 13,2020


(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein via Yale News)

Are Paranoid Delusions a Disability?

Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010 (EQA 2010) says that a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial long-term adverse effect’ on the person’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities. You must prove to the Employment Tribunal (ET) that your condition has (or had) a ‘substantial’ and ‘adverse’ effect on your day to day activities. In addition, you need to prove that the condition is, or is likely to last 12 months or more (substantial long-term effect). Note that your employer has a defence to a disability discrimination claim and to a claim for failure to make reasonable adjustments if they did not know or could not reasonably be expected to know of your disability.

This is what happened in  Sullivan v Bury Street Capital Ltd where the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) considered whether the Employment Tribunal (ET) was right to conclude that Mr Sullivan’s paranoid delusions were not ‘long-term’ and so he was not disabled within the meaning of EQA 2010.

The Facts

Mr Sullivan joined BSCL in 2008 and from the outset had a relaxed attitude to observing office hours and documenting activities. Although his employer did take umbrage to this, no disciplinary action was taken against him.

In early 2013 Mr Sullivan had a short relationship with a Ukrainian woman, after which he began to believe he was being stalked by a group of Russians. Mr Sullivan believed this group had access to personal devices and work calendar and as a result refrained from using his phone and calendar so as to make it more difficult for his movements to be tracked.

As a consequence, Mr Sullivan’s behaviour became more and more erratic at work and he withdrew from contacts and friends. All the while his work attendance also drifted. BSCL’s CEO caught wind of Mr Sullivan’s beliefs in the Summer of 2013 and asserted that he was ‘in a bad place psychologically and physically’ and that he was ‘shaking and sweating’ and that his beliefs were tantamount to ‘extreme paranoia’.

However, Mr Sullivan’s began to subside in the Autumn of 2013 such that he was able to escort the CEO on a business trip abroad. In early 2014 Mr Sullivan consulted with doctors and psychologists, who noted at the time that his condition was improving as he appeared to be maintaining his personal hygiene and used the telephone more frequently, although he still reported that he believed he was being followed by Russians. Mr Sullivan did not express anything about his continued belief of being followed to his employer.

By August 2017 BSCL’s CEO was on the verge of terminating Mr Sullivan for his attitude at work and approach to timekeeping. In September 2017, the CEO met Mr Sullivan for a review and to set out the particulars of his remuneration, but by the following day, Mr Sullivan emailed to say he was not well purporting that he had been advised by his Doctors not attend work for the next four weeks. In response, the CEO invited Mr Sullivan to a meeting to discuss if they should part ways. Mr Sullivan did not attend, and the CEO emailed to give him three months’ notice of his dismissal, citing Mr Sullivan’s attitude toward timekeeping, lack of communication, unauthorised absences, and lack of record-keeping.

Mr Sullivan brought claims for unfair dismissal, discrimination arising from a disability, indirect disability and failure to make reasonable adjustments claims.

In the Employment Tribunal

The tribunal determined that Mr Sullivan had a mental impairment which had a substantial adverse effect on his ability to carry out day to day activities. However, it also found that the substantial adverse effect ceased after a few months.

Although it accepted that Mr Sullivan’s delusion continued throughout the relevant time period, this did not have a substantial adverse impact on his ability to carry out day-to-day activities between late 2013 and the summer of 2017.

While the tribunal did accept that another substantial adverse effect arose at the latest in July 2017, it found that it was not likely that this would persist for a further 12 months as the previous episode in 2013 had lasted approximately five months. The tribunal differentiated between the two episodes based on their surrounding circumstances and triggers.

The tribunal concluded that even if it had found that Mr Sullivan had a long-term disability, BSCL did not have actual or constructive knowledge of it in 2017, and so it could not have discriminated against him or failed to make a reasonable adjustment.

In the Employment Appeal Tribunal 

The EAT upheld the tribunal’s decision, stating that the tribunal was entitled to find that the issues with Mr Sullivan’s attendance and attitude at work between 2014 and 2017 were not linked to his delusions as these behaviours pre-dated his delusions. This, paired with the fact that Mr Sullivan did not make his employer aware of continuing delusions so as to draw a link between them were key factors in the tribunal’s reasoning being upheld.

The EAT found that the tribunal was entitled to find that the reoccurrence of Mr Sullivan’s delusions did not qualify as a ‘long-term’ disability because the tribunal had considered the specific circumstances around each event. Based on the evidence available at the time in 2013, it could not be said, in the tribunal’s view, that the delusions were likely to recur. The episode in 2017 was set apart because this was triggered by the one-off remuneration discussions which, when considered in the wider context, could also not be said to show Mr Sullivan’s delusions were likely to recur.

Agreeing with the tribunal’s finding that BSCL did not have actual or constructive knowledge of Mr Sullivan’s disability, the EAT found that the tribunal was entitled to factor in Mr Sullivan’s colleague’s evidence when reaching this conclusion. In this case, BSCL was a small company and this colleague, who sat close by, had not noticed the effects Mr Sullivan claimed his delusions had on his personal appearance, hygiene and sleep. Therefore, this evidence could be relied on to conclude BSCL did not have actual or constructive knowledge of Mr Sullivan’s continued delusions.

What does this mean for you?

This case highlights the fact that you must show all of the key elements of the definition of disability and that the substantial adverse effect either was long-lasting or likely to be long-lasting. In Mr Sullivan’s case, the tribunal found that there was insufficient evidence to show that the substantial adverse effects of Mr Sullivan’s delusions were long-term.

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