A lawyer who was suspended for telling a joke likening Africans to cannibals has won a discrimination case against his legal firm because he was suffering from mental health issues at the time, a tribunal has ruled.
Mike Taplin, a managing partner at a national firm based in Derby, made an offensive joke, remarked about the size of his penis and compared the terms LGBTQ to GDPR during a speech at a legal conference.
Horrified managers launched disciplinary action, suspending the ‘highly successful’ solicitor while an investigation took place.
But they failed to take into account that the 56-year-old had only just returned from time off work for stress, anxiety and depression and was in a ‘fragile’ state of mind when he gave the talk.
An employment tribunal has since concluded Mr Taplin was the victim of disability discrimination because the firm’s chairman pushed for his suspension having come to believe that supporting his mental illness was a ‘diversion’ from the business.
The solicitor – who resigned from the company Freeth’s following the disciplinary action after 19 years there – is now in line for compensation after successfully suing them.
Mike Taplin, a managing partner at a national firm based in Derby, made an offensive joke, remarked about the size of his penis and compared the terms LGBTQ to GDPR during a speech at a legal conference
A hearing in Nottingham was told property expert Mr Taplin had been appointed Managing Partner at the company’s Derby office in 2008 and turnover had increased tenfold under his leadership.
However, he was a self-confessed workaholic who regularly put in 13 hour days, starting in the office at 7am.
By the end of 2015 the tribunal heard he was starting to suffer from deteriorating mental health, and by the end of the following year was assessed as being ‘burnt out’.
Chairman Colin Flanagan tried to persuade him to take some time off so he could come back to work refreshed, but Mr Taplin struggled to stay away from the office.
He was prescribed anti-depressants and later in the Spring – after he took some time off – the company urged him to let a colleague take over some of his responsibilities.
In March 2017, Mr Flanagan wrote to him using a football analogy to urge him to slow down.
‘You have lost a yard of pace and can no longer expect to bang in 30 goals per season,’ he wrote. ‘You must drop back into midfield and don’t try to cover every blade of grass or play every game.
‘You can stay on as ‘club captain’ but leave the captaincy on the field to someone else.’
The tribunal – chaired by Judge Rachel Broughton – heard Mr Taplin was very upset by what he saw as a ‘damning critique’ and by Mr Flanagan’s advice shortly afterwards to be ‘more jovial around the office’.
‘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,’ the tribunal found.
The offices of Freeth’s in Derby, where Mr Taplin worked as a solicitor for some 19 years
In October 2017 Mr Taplin agreed to take a seven month sabbatical. But when he returned to work the following year, colleagues complained of his ‘hyper’ behaviour.
In June 2018 he said he wanted to give a presentation at a conference for the firm. Company executives agreed, even though there had been fears it might be a ‘car crash’.
The panel said: ‘There was… a certain expectation of disaster and willingness to let it unfold.’
The hearing was told that at the conference Mr Taplin and another partner, Ian Tempest, gave speeches which contained ‘inappropriate’ material.
‘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,’ the tribunal heard.
‘He had also referred to him having all his certificates so that he was both GDPR and LGBT compliant.’
The hearing was told that later ‘[He] accepted…that his presentation involved sexual crudeness, stereotypical racist descriptions, mocking of sexual orientation and was in his own words ‘totally indefensible’.’
The hearing was told that after complaints from audience members, a disciplinary committee decided to suspend him – but not Mr Tempest – while an investigation was carried out.
However, before making that decision the committee was not shown company medical reports which showed the seriousness of Mr Taplin’s condition, a stress-related illness known as Adjustment Disorder.
In the weeks before the conference the solicitor had attempted to take his own life and had had his anti-depressant medication doubled, the hearing was told.
The tribunal concluded that Mr Flanagan had used his influence to have Mr Taplin suspended and had withheld medical details from the committee.
‘Mr Flanagan was concerned, we find, that the disability was going to continue ‘longer term’…,’ the panel said.
‘This view was…based on the fact that (Mr Taplin’s) condition was a mental impairment for which recovery is less easy to forecast and he had a stereotype-influenced view of mental illness, i.e. that it was going to drag on longer term and continue to be a ‘challenge’ or diversion, when there was no medical evidence to support that view.’
The solicitor – who resigned from the company Freeth’s following the disciplinary action after 19 years there – is now in line for compensation after successfully suing them
The panel found that Mr Taplin’s telling of the joke was so out of character for him it must have been linked to his mental health or the medication he was taking to combat his condition.
‘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,’ the tribunal said.
The tribunal was told that the decision to suspend him, rather than let him take leave, prompted Mr Taplin to suffer a relapse in his condition.
At the end of the disciplinary process he was ordered to make a public apology and attend a diversity training course. Shortly afterwards he resigned and launched legal proceedings against Freeth’s.
Ruling that his suspension was discriminatory, the tribunal 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 hearing to determine compensation will be held at a later date.