Section 351 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) prohibits employers from taking adverse action against an employee because of the person’s physical or mental disability. The Federal Court’s decision in Robinson v Western Union has caused consternation among employers by holding that an employer who takes adverse action because of the manifestation of a disability is taking adverse action because of the disability itself. Perhaps more importantly for employers, the Federal Court coupled that approach with a narrow interpretation of what an employer needs to do to show they were acting because of the inherent requirements of the position. This strict interpretation will make section 351 a hot topic for employers in 2019.
Factual background of Robinson v Western Union
- In February 2013, Mr Robinson commenced his employment with Western Union Business Solutions as a Client Executive. In the financial year ending June 2015, Western Union paid Mr Robinson $247,000 including base salary and commissions.
- On 16 September 2016, after raising separate disputes regarding his manager and a commission payment, Mr Robinson commenced what would become an extended period of sick leave. Mr Robinson provided a series of medical certificates stating that he was suffering from work-related stress, depression and anxiety. Mr Robinson made an application for worker’s compensation that was denied by QBE Insurance in December 2016.
- During his absence, Western Union asked Mr Robinson a number of times when he anticipated returning to work. Mr Robinson provided scant responses, did not provide any timeframe and often simply referred Western Union to his medical certificates. In January 2017, Western Union directed Mr Robinson to attend a medical assessment arranged by Western Union. Mr Robinson initially refused to attend. Despite eventually stating he would attend an appointment against his wishes, Western Union did not persist with arranging a medical assessment.
- Mr Robinson’s accrual of paid leave was exhausted in February 2017, though his absence continued on unpaid leave. Despite repeated requests, Mr Robinson never provided any detail about his prognosis or expected return to work.
- On 8 May 2017, after a 7 month absence, Western Union terminated Mr Robinson’s employment. The termination letter cited three reasons for the termination:
- “You have not attended work for a period 7 of months” and “cannot give any indication as to when you will return”;
- “Your unreasonable failure to co-operate with Western Union’s attempt to obtain up-to-date specialist medical advice”; and
- “the Company’s serious concerns about your capacity to return to work”.
- Mr Robinson claimed that Western Union contravened section 351 of the Fair Work Actby terminating his employment because of his disability.
A disability includes its manifestations
Of no controversy in this case is that Mr Robinson’s psychiatric condition amounted to a disability for the purpose of section 351. What is controversial however, is Justice Flick’s determination that Western Union’s termination of Mr Robinson’s employment because of its “serious concerns about his capacity to return to work” is adverse action taken because of Mr Robinson’s mental disability. Justice Flick explained,
…any lack of “capacity” of Mr Robinson to return to work was but a “manifestation” of his claimed mental disability and a “manifestation” that could not be severed from that disability
It is not difficult to see why this reasoning would cause employers consternation. Employers are frequently forced to manage employees who take long periods of sick leave (paid and unpaid) while refusing to communicate openly with their employer about the nature and prognosis of their illness or injury. Justice Flick’s ruling that it was unlawful for the employer to bring the curtain down on the saga, even after a period of 7 months of absence due to a disability with no return to work in the foreseeable future, might leave employers faced with a similar situation thinking, ‘must we keep this person employed forever?’
Can a disability and its manifestations ever be separated?
In general protections cases, courts have not been consistent in their willingness to distinguish the manifestation (including its practical consequences) of a protected attribute from the attribute itself. For example, in Hodkinson v Commonwealth , the Court ruled,
“… while physical or mental limitations may be a disability, or an aspect of a disability, their practical consequences such as absence from work, are not.”
Similarly, in the prominent case CFMEU v Endeavour Coal the majority of the full Federal Court ruled that adverse action – removal from a profitable roster – taken against an employee because of his frequent use of personal leave was not a contravention of the Fair Work Act because the manifestation of his sick leave use – unreliable attendance – could be separated from the exercise of his workplace right to take sick leave.
However, Justice Flick’s conflation of a manifestation of a disability with the disability itself is not without precedent. In Keys v Department of Disability, Housing and Community Services, Justice Bennett of the Federal Court dealt with circumstances very similar to those in Western Union. Mr Keys had been absent from work for an extended period because of a psychiatric condition (adjustment disorder with emotional features). Eventually, as in Western Union, Mr Keys’ employment was terminated because of his lack of attendance. The letter of termination stated the reason for Mr Keys’ termination was “his prolonged and repeated period of absence from work in 2008-2009, and his frequent and prolonged inability since 2006 … to carry out any work in his particular position.” Mr Keys claimed his former employer contravened section 659 of the Workplace relations Act 1996 (the substantially identical predecessor to section 351 of the Fair Work Act). The Court readily accepted, nor was it disputed, that Mr Keys’ employer terminated his employment because of his disability.
Similarly, in Shizas v Commission of Police, Mr Shizas’ application to become an Australian Federal Police officer was denied because the AFP determined he would not be able to perform certain functions required of an AFP officer due to this chronic back condition (ankylosing spondylosis). Mr Shizas claimed the AFP had contravened section 351 by taking adverse against him because of his disability. As in Western Union and Keys, the Court had no problem accepting that the manifestation of a disability can be the same thing as the disability itself when it comes to the employer’s reasons for taking adverse action. As Justice Katzmann concluded:
In the absence of a statutory definition, one must look to the ordinary meaning of the word. In its ordinary meaning “disability” denotes both the condition and its manifestations.”