• University Hospitals Birmingham found to have unfairly dismissed senior manager
  • Trust did not properly consider her bipolar disorder in decision, tribunal says
  • IT manager acted “inappropriately” after restructure moved her away from reporting directly to her “life partner”

A major acute hospital unfairly dismissed a senior manager, discriminating against her on the basis of a mental health condition, an employment tribunal has found.

Sophie Wheeler was head of informatics at University Hospitals Birmingham Foundation Trust, where she had worked for 20 years, until her dismissal for gross misconduct in March 2016.

The dismissal followed her behaviour after a restructure of the IT department that saw her moved away from a role in which she was line managed by the director of informatics, Daniel Ray, who was also her “life partner”, the tribunal heard.

This behaviour included turning up at the medical director’s home uninvited and sending an email to staff challenging the restructure, after being specifically directed not to.

However, in a recently published judgment, an employment tribunal upheld Ms Wheeler’s complaint that her dismissal amounted to discrimination against her on the basis of her bipolar disorder.

The judgment said: “We do not… accept that, at the time of the claimant’s dismissal, there was no reasonable alternative but to dismiss summarily. The claimant was a long serving employee in a senior management post. The respondent’s values and policies also included promoting diversity and making adjustments for disabled employees.”

The trust fought Ms Wheeler’s claim, arguing evidence supporting her diagnosis was unreliable and the behaviour leading to dismissal was not linked to her bipolar disorder because it was not “out of character”.

But the tribunal found while Ms Wheeler was not blameless, the trust’s conclusion “that she would have reacted as she did in any event amounts, at best, to an assumption”.

The judgment added: “It seems to us, therefore, likely that the claimant would still have been angry and would still have responded unprofessionally but her reactions would not have been as extreme as those she actually manifested. In those circumstances her condition did have a significant impact on her actions which, therefore, arose because of something in consequence of her disability.”

Ms Wheeler was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder on 3 February 2016 during the disciplinary process that led to her dismissal. She appealed against the trust’s decision on the basis of the diagnosis but was initially unsuccessful.

She had been managing mental health issues for several years and the diagnosing clinician’s view was that she had lived with bipolar all her life, the tribunal said.

At some point during her time at UHB she developed a personal relationship with Mr Ray who had been her manager for several years previously.

It is unclear from the tribunal’s decision whether the trust was aware of this relationship.

The trust made no comment before publication. Ms Wheeler also did not comment.

In May 2015, a restructure of the IT department was proposed, which would effectively split Ms Wheeler’s team in two. At that time, Ms Wheeler told medical director Dave Rosser, who was leading on the restructure, of her hopes for a promotion in the reshuffle.

When the restructure was proposed in July 2015, Ms Wheeler was unhappy she did not receive a promotion and would no longer report directly to Mr Ray.

Following this decision, Ms Wheeler sent Dr Rosser several emails including one that was “wholly inappropriate”.

After other staff in the department were informed of the restructure decision, she sent a group email, contrary to Dr Rosser’s request that she refrain from doing so, claiming she had not been involved in the decision and was “considering her position”.

On 27 July 2015, she went to Dr Rosser’s home uninvited to try to discuss the restructure.

The judgment deferred a decision on remedies pending further hearings. The tribunal ruled any award of compensation be reduced by 25 per cent to reflect Ms Wheeler’s own contribution to her dismissal.