The tribunal ruled that the firm could have offered more support
A tribunal has ruled that Freeths discriminated against a "burnt out" senior partner who had been diagnosed as "disabled" with mental health issues.
Mike Taplin was managing partner of the firm's Derby office, and had a run of being the firm's top billing equity partner for several years. He frequently racked up 2,600 chargeable hours a year, along with additional hours slogging on business development.
In 2016, a psychologist diagnosed Taplin as being disabled, due to a mixture of anxiety and depression, and said he was "burnt out".
The tribunal said that Taplin was "an extremely hard-working individual who by his own admission loved to work" but "found it difficult to step back.” Freeths had benefited from Taplin's "drive and passion for his work" over the years, which had contributed towards his ill health, said the tribunal.
Taplin took some time off from work. But when he returned to the office, Freeths did not put in place a sufficient plan or adjustments for Taplin, found the tribunal.
The firm failed to assign a designated mentor to support the hard-working partner. Freeths chairman, Colin Flanagan, told Taplin to be "more positive" in the office, a remark that the tribunal deemed to be "grossly insensitive." Flanagan also told Taplin that he had "lost a yard of pace" and said that he should "drop back to midfield" to give the "captaincy" to someone else.
Freeths failed to pick up on red flags concerning Taplin's "frenetic" behaviour, said the tribunal, because of a lack of understanding and communication about his mental health. And in 2018 the firm suspended the partner after he made a 'joke' at a summer conference, which involved "sexual crudeness, stereotypical racist descriptions" and "mocking of sexual orientation." The comments went against Taplin's "normal behaviour", said the tribunal. Another partner at the conference also made crude comments in his presentation, but was not suspended.
The tribunal heard that a senior person at the firm had known about the joke in advance, and had emailed a colleague to say it would be a "car crash". There was a "certain expectation of disaster and willingness to let it unfold," said the tribunal.
The tribunal ruled that Freeths' suspension of Taplin was not a "proportionate response" as other "less discriminatory" measures could have been taken. The tribunal found that although the 'joke' was a factor in the firm's disciplinary decision, Taplin's disability was “another reason" which had "a significant influence on the decision to suspend".
“The suspension led to a deterioration in his mental health", said the tribunal, with Taplin reasonably concluding "that his position was untenable". He resigned from the firm in September 2018.
The tribunal found that Taplin's resignation was due to reasons of "unlawful acts of discrimination" by Freeths. A hearing to determine the remedy will follow.
Taplin, now a partner at Gunner Cooke, told RollOnFriday that he had no comment on the outcome of the case "other than to say that the Judgement speaks for itself."
Freeths said in a statement: "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."