Derby lawyer wins discrimination case against former employer

A Derby legal professional has won a discrimination case against law firm Freeths after he was judged to have been suffering from mental health issues at the time.

Mike Taplin, who now works for Gunnercooke, was suspended by Freeths after likening Africans to cannibals and comparing the terms LGBTQ to GDPR during a speech he was giving at a legal conference.

He was later suspended while an investigation took place. However, an employment tribunal has judged that Freeths failed to take into account that Taplin had only just returned from time off work for stress, depression and anxiety when the comments were made and that he was in a “fragile” state of mind when the incident took place.

The tribunal ruled that Taplin was the victim of disability discrimination because Freeths’ chairman, Colin Flanagan, insisted on his suspension following after coming to the conclusion that the Taplin’s poor mental health was a “diversion” from the business.

Taplin resigned from Freeths after 19 years with the firm. He was managing partner at its Derby office, but by the end of 2015 had started to suffer from poor mental health and was regularly working 13-hour days, with Flanagan urging him to take some time off, which he did.

The tribunal, overseen by Judge Rachel Broughton, heard that Taplin became upset after Flanagan sent him a note suggesting that he relinquish some of his duties to colleagues. The tribunal found that “To give an instruction to someone with a depressive mental health condition who is taking medication, to in effect ‘cheer up’ is grossly insensitive and really quite irresponsible and reckless”.

By October 2017, Taplin had agreed to take seven months away from the firm, which he did.

He returned and said he wanted to mark his return by giving a presentation for Freeths at a conference, to which the company agreed.

The tribunal heard that, at the conference, Taplin and another Freeths partner, Ian Tempest, gave speeches that included “inappropriate language”.

The hearing also heard that: “The ‘joke’ which Mr Taplin told was in essence that a team from Freeth’s had carried out a site visit in a jungle where they met cannibals with spears and went on to allude to and make fun of the relative penis size of Mr Taplin and two male colleagues.

“He had also referred to him having all his certificates so that he was both GDPR and LGBT compliant.”

Taplin later accepted that this behaviour was “totally unacceptable” and he was suspended, although Tempest remained working at Freeths.

Before making the decision to suspend Taplin, the hearing heard that a discplinary committee had not been show his medical records, which showed that he was suffering from a stress-related condition called Adjustment Disorder. In the weeks leading up the conference, Taplin had also attempted to take his own life and had his anti-depressant medication doubled.

The tribunal panel found that the joke that Taplin told was so out of character that the incident must have been linked to his condition and the medication he was taking to try and battle it.

The tribunal said: “We have little difficulty concluding that the decision (he) made about the content of his presentation, on a balance of probabilities, was impaired by his disability and/or medication and therefore the ‘joke’ he told was something arising from his disability.”

Taplin was ordered to make a public apology at the end of the discplinary process and attend a diversity training course. Not long after this he resigned and started legal proceedings against Freeths.

The tribunal ruled that Taplin’s suspension was discriminatory, and said: “Employers are expected to show tolerance and take the illness into account when judging an employee’s performance and conduct, including considering whether to treat the problem as a ill health or misconduct issue.”

A further hearing will be held at a later date to determine compensation.

Angela Brumpton, the Gunnercooke partner who has been advising Taplin, told “My client has shown tremendous courage and tenacity in holding this large, national law firm to account for the discriminatory treatment he was subjected to, when suffering from a diagnosed mental health condition. He particularly appreciates the efforts of the Employment Tribunal in not only comprehensively considering all of the evidence in the case, but for their detailed and balanced Judgement.”

A statement from Freeths read: “Freeths has participated in an employment tribunal concerning former Derby partner Mike Taplin.

“While the tribunal’s principal decision on liability has been issued, the remedy is yet to be determined. The proceedings are therefore still ongoing so it would be inappropriate for us to comment further on the case at this stage.”

Taplin himself declined to comment on the outcome.