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A law firm unfairly dismissed a solicitor who was absent from work following cancer treatment, an employment tribunal has ruled.
Elona Onibere had been a housing solicitor at Rodman Pearce Solicitors in Luton, since 2014. She became ill in February 2019 and took time off work, and was subsequently diagnosed with a cancerous tumour.
A clause in Onibere's contract stated that the firm could dismiss her, with a month's notice, if she was absent for more than 26 weeks in a year, due to incapacity.
The firm's owner, Ademola Akilo, claimed that he wrote to Onibere on 29 July, stating that due to her inability to return to work because of illness, he was giving her a month's notice. However, Onibere disputed that she received the letter on that date. The tribunal found that Akilo only sent the notice letter to Onibere on 12 September, as an email attachment; nearly two weeks after the firm had fired the solicitor.
Onibere submitted an appeal to Rodman Pearce, but the firm did not arrange a hearing.
Onibere's cancer diagnosis meant that she was a disabled person as defined in the Equality Act 2010. She brought a claim of direct disability discrimination, which the tribunal dismissed. However, the tribunal found that Onibere did suffer discrimination as she was sacked without consultation or an exploration of possible alternatives.
Akilo told the tribunal that he did not realise, at the time, that Onibere was disabled under the Equality Act. He acknowledged that, with hindsight, he should have taken specialist employment advice, and he apologised to Onibere for "any distress he may have caused".
The tribunal said that Rodman Pearce Solicitors could have validly terminated Onibere's employment, if it had followed the correct procedures. The firm's housing department, where Onibere worked, was operating at a loss in 2019, and was being closed. The firm could have entered into a valid consultation with Onibere to discuss her health and specifically point out that there was no role for her in the housing team on her return.
But the judge said Rodman Pearce's failures were "substantive" and not just procedural, as the tribunal found that the firm only sent the notice letter to Onibere after it had dismissed her, and it had failed to grant her an appeal hearing.
The tribunal will hold a remedy hearing in April.