Astra Zeneca Employee With Mental Health Disability Called “Mr Hyde” and Unfairly Dismissed

In the case of Mr J Muir v Astra Zeneca UK Ltd, a scientist was found to be unfairly dismissed by Astra Zeneca as they had not taken into account his mental disability in their decision-making.

The Facts in Mr J Muir v Astra Zeneca UK Ltd

Background – Claimant Joins Astra Zeneca

Dr Muir (“The Claimant”) began his employment with Astra Zeneca UK Ltd (“The Respondent”) as a scientist in the Respondent’s Chemical Development Department on 5 January 1998. The Claimant worked on the “technical” management side of the project and had no actual line management responsibilities for any of the teams involved.

He had a depressive illness and generalised anxiety disorder which were all well documented in his GP reports from 2014 onwards. The Claimant accessed the AXA PPP Healthcare service provided to him as an employee benefit during 2018, concerning his ongoing mental health issues.

Dr Muir’s Absence and Disturbing Work Behaviour

Between 1-15 November 2018, the Claimant was absent from work for “Anxiety NOS” (Not Otherwise Specified).

On 19 November 2018, the Claimant saw Dr Gowrisunkar (consultant psychiatrist) who noted in her report that he had a “traumatic month in the context of a flare-up at work which was very stressful….he felt that he could not carry on and was very distressed”.

On 15 July 2020, Mr Powell (Team Manager) sent an email to David Klauber, the Claimant’s line manager, copying in two other members of staff, stating that he was …” having some issues with Dr Muir atm …[b]ehaviours issues again and his mental health – bit worrying”. Mr Powell sent a further email that day stating “He’s been ‘good’ overall this past 18 months, he’s shown flashes of alternating into `Mr Hyde’ mode now and again but recently he’s been mainly in Hyde mode”

On 17 July 2020, Mr Watts a member of one of the teams raised an issue of potential bullying and harassment in the workplace citing the Claimant.  Other team members added complaints regarding his behaviour towards them in team meetings.

Astra Zeneca Senior Director Chairs Disciplinary Hearing – Dr Muir Dismissed for Gross Misconduct

On 22 October 2020, a disciplinary hearing was chaired by Mr Bromilow (Senior Director for Product Development and dismissing officer at the disciplinary hearing). Mr Bromilow believed that the Claimant’s behaviour towards a number of his colleagues met the definition of bullying and harassment and amounted to gross misconduct, and therefore amounted to gross misconduct and summary dismissal. There was no evidence that his mental illness was taken into consideration in this decision.

On 18 December 2020, the Claimant was dismissed for gross misconduct without notice, by letter citing amongst other things his intimidating and unacceptable behaviour at team meetings towards colleagues.

Mr Muir Submits a Written Appeal to Astra Zeneca Appeal Manager

On 8 January 2021, the Claimant submitted a written appeal stating that his disability had not been taken into consideration, he had not been adequately supported, and that the sanction was too harsh.  The appeal manager appointed was Helen Marsh, who as part of considering the appeal contacted Mr Bromilow on two occasions to discuss the aspects of the appeal.

As part of her investigation of the appeal, the appeal manager would have had access to key medical evidence provided by Dr Gowrisunkar. She stated that the Claimant’s vulnerability to stress, his poor mental health, and taking on too much work would’ve led to his problematic behaviour with colleagues anyway.

She went on to say that in her opinion:-

“‘…. Moreover, ‘In my opinion, it is highly likely that Mr Muir’s condition will have had a detrimental impact on his ability to manage interpersonal interactions and to register any breaches of an appropriate interpersonal line for the reasons stated above i.e.,

  • The effects of depression and anxiety
  • The effects of high levels of stress.”

The allegations were nonetheless upheld, and the Claimant’s appeal was rejected

The claimant then brought claims for disability discrimination, unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal to the Employment Tribunal.

The Decision of the Employment Tribunal

On The Issue of Disability

The Employment Tribunal found that there was no disagreement between the parties that the Claimant had a disability. His disability met the requirements of section 6 of the Equality Act 2010 by reason of his depressive illness and generalised anxiety disorder. The dismissal of the Claimant was found to have amounted to unfavourable treatment.

They found that how the Claimant spoke to his team colleagues was because of his underlying levels of anxiety and depression. These were further aggravated by his frustrations around a lack of management support. Moreover, it was mainly connected to his mental illness and something he was unable to control. Therefore, his disability played a large part in the way he related to his colleagues, leading to his dismissal. This was seen as something arising as a consequence of the claimant’s disability under section 15 of the Equality Act.

The tribunal although accepting the Respondent’s argument that they owed a duty to the other staff to provide a safe working environment, and acceptable standards of conduct towards other staff members, the action of dismissing the Claimant was not a proportionate response.

The tribunal also found that the Respondent knew about the Claimant’s disability of anxiety and depression from January 2019 onwards.

On Unfair Dismissal

The tribunal found that the Respondent had been wrong to decide that the behaviour of the Claimant had amounted to gross misconduct. They felt this was not a belief that could not have been reasonably held if a proper consideration of the evidence regarding his state of mental health had been considered.

The tribunal applied this reasoning to how the disciplinary and appeal hearings had been conducted. Both failed to take into consideration his mental health and the medical evidence provided. The tribunal also expressed concern about how the appeal hearing manager contacted the disciplinary hearing manager, which may have affected her impartiality (applying the objectivity test).

This was also found to breach ACAS guidelines and thus a 10% uplift was applied to the compensation award.

On Wrongful Dismissal

The tribunal found the Claimant was wrongfully dismissed as his conduct was not sufficiently serious to amount to a repudiatory breach, and he should not have been dismissed without notice.

In Conclusion

The Claimant was held to have been successful in all of his claims and his case would now move to a remedy hearing to assess compensation.

Our Lawyers View

Stephen Norton, lawyer at Redmans, says – “In this case, an employer failed on several fronts to provide a valuable employee with sufficient support to manage their mental health condition or follow a fair process before dismissing them. 

A lesson to employers to provide adequate support to disabled employees and follow a fair disciplinary procedure”.