Academic with disabilities was 'unfairly dismissed'

Tribunal found Liverpool John Moores guilty of victimising scholar, writes Melanie Newman

April 9, 2009

Liverpool John Moores University unlawfully victimised and unfairly dismissed an academic with disabilities, an employment tribunal has found.

The university was judged to have suspended Helena Lunt, senior lecturer at its Centre for Public Health, "primarily" because she had lodged a legal claim for disability discrimination against it.

The tribunal said: "The decision ... was an act of unlawful victimisation with the intention of keeping the claimant out of the workplace and away from her colleagues".

Ms Lunt resigned in June 2007 after Liverpool John Moores threatened to investigate claims that she had committed benefit fraud. The threat was the "last straw", she told the tribunal.

The Department for Work and Pensions was investigating her on suspicion of benefit fraud, and the tribunal described the university's threat to carry out its own investigation as "wholly inappropriate".

It concluded that Ms Lunt had been unfairly dismissed because Liverpool John Moores' conduct had damaged the employment relationship to such a degree that she could not be expected to stay. The university has appealed the judgment, arguing that it is "perverse".

Besides the suspension and the investigation threat, over a period of time the institution behaved in ways that amounted to a breach of trust and confidence, the tribunal added.

Brian Kerrigan, director of corporate services at Liverpool John Moores, who was appointed to investigate Ms Lunt's grievance as an "objective information gatherer", intervened and answered questions on behalf of the institution during an internal hearing about the grievance.

"(It) gave the appearance of partisan one-sidedness ... (and) was flawed, biased and ... confrontational," said the judgment, which was delivered last autumn.

Appeal hearings for Ms Lunt were similarly flawed, with one branded by the tribunal as a "sham". Michelle Ibbs, pro vice-chancellor of marketing at the university, who conducted one of the appeals, "abrogated all responsibility for the university to deal with allegations of discrimination, laying the onus on the complainant to investigate", the judgment said.

"(Ms Lunt) maintained that the grievance procedures in their entirety amounted to a mistreatment of her, and the tribunal held that this was the case."

Ms Lunt's was one of a series of legal claims brought against the university in 2007-08. It settled actions brought by Mahmoud El-Sayed, a professor in the School of Sport and Exercise Science, John Vaughan, former director of the School of Management, Leila Luukko-Vinchenzo, deputy director of the School of Languages, and David Gardner, former director of the School of Accounting, Finance and Economics.

Mr Gardner, who was made redundant after a restructuring of the business and law faculty, told Times Higher Education: "People, including directors of schools, were simply not told what was happening until it happened."

In 2008, the university successfully defended a claim brought by Linda Archibald, director of the School of Languages, who claimed that she had been unfairly dismissed because she had blown the whistle on mismanagement at the university. A tribunal did not find that this was the reason for her redundancy and dismissed her claims.

A university spokeswoman said: "The circumstances surrounding each of these cases are different. With a university the size and complexity of Liverpool John Moores, it is inevitable that from time to time issues are raised against us. Our response is appropriate and proportionate to each claim."

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