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An employee's mental illness will not make a dismissal unfair

The Case

Monash University v Michael Meaney (2019)

Mr. Meaney was an employee of Monash University. Before his dismissal, Mr. Meaney had advised his employer that he suffered from mental health issues and had provided them with a report from his doctor, indicating he suffered from anxiety and an adjustment disorder.

In December 2017, Mr. Meaney was summarily dismissed, as a result of him speaking angrily and aggressively to colleagues, and driving a vehicle recklessly on campus. Mr. Meaney lodged an unfair dismissal application with the Fair Work Commission (FWC).

The Verdict

At first instance, the FWC found that while there was a valid reason for Mr Meaney’s dismissal, it was harsh given Mr Meaney’s mental health issues. Instead Monash University should have used other disciplinary avenues apart from dismissal. Monash University appealed the decision to the Full Bench of the FWC. The Full Bench held that:

  • the Fair Work Commissioner at first instance had given disproportionate weight to Mr Meaney's mental health issues when assessing the harshness of the dismissal;
  • Mr Meaney's conduct was of such a serious nature that Monash University's decision to use a disciplinary process such as dismissal was a natural consequence; and
  • the Fair Work Commissioner at first instance had made erroneous factual findings when assessing Mr Meaney’s conduct.

As such, the matter was referred back for rehearing.

The Lessons

Despite the Full Bench’s decision, when seeking to dismiss an employee with mental health issues, you should take a cautious approach.

There are not only unfair dismissal considerations, but general protections and discrimination claim risks. It is advisable to liaise with the employee’s doctor to ascertain if any reasonable adjustments can be made to enable the employee to perform the inherent requirements of their position, without causing a risk to the health and safety of others.

Please note: Case law is reported as correct and current at time of publishing. Be aware that cases in lower courts may be appealed and decisions subsequently overturned.

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