A marine biologist has won a pregnancy discrimination claim after she was fired from her university job two months before starting maternity leave – with one boss telling her ‘hard work’ and ‘karma’ could help her secure another role.
Caroline Law was made redundant from her position at the University of Cumbria in June 2020, as her fixed-term contract was coming to an end.
An employment tribunal was told that funding for her department had dried up due to the Covid pandemic, making her position untenable.
However Mrs Law said she had been on various contracts during her five years at the university and she was reassured that bosses ‘had every intention of retaining her in the department’ once the funding expired.
Nevertheless, she was pulled into a meeting with her line manager Rachel Lowthian who informed her she was being let go.
At an employment hearing, held in Manchester, a panel this week said that the case was ‘complex’.
Judges accepted that Mrs Law was not selected for redundancy because she was pregnant, but they were not convinced that her employment had to end completely, particularly as others whose funding had expired at the same time were given new roles.
The ruling said: ‘It all has the air of a game of musical chairs in which, entirely coincidentally, the music stops just as the pregnant Mrs Law, with her four year record of good service, adaptable skills and excellent feedback, is the one left furthest away from the remaining seats.’
When Caroline Law tried to appeal her sacking the university’s chief operating officer David Chesser (pictured) took a ‘perfunctory’ approach to her claim and rejected her argument that her pregnancy made her ‘vulnerable’
They agreed that Mrs Law’s dismissal had been partly unfair as it was ‘tainted by discrimination’, particularly after one boss rejected her claim that she was ‘vulnerable’ due to her complicated pregnancy – and after Mrs Lowthian offered baby advice while firing her.
During said meeting, Mrs Lowthian advised Mrs Law on securing child benefits, finding second hand baby clothes and techniques to bathe a newborn, the panel heard.
Rachel Lowthian also suggested Mrs Law might be able to work from home while the baby slept and that if she worked hard she would get good ‘karma’.
Mrs Lowthian’s ‘weird and inappropriate’ remarks left the expectant mother ’embarrassed and upset’, the hearing was told.
But when she tried to appeal her sacking the university’s chief operating officer David Chesser took a ‘perfunctory’ approach to her claim and rejected her argument that her pregnancy made her ‘vulnerable’.
It came after the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Julie Mennell, PhD, vowed that the university would not permit vulnerable staff to be disproportionately affected by its Covid response.
Mrs Law is now set for compensation after Mr Chesser’s approach to her appeal was found to be discriminatory.
The hearing held in Manchester was told Mrs Law joined the University of Cumbria in Carlisle in 2015 before becoming a manager and then being promoted to an academic lead in 2019.
The ‘well thought of’ academic also helped teach the zoology course, but mainly worked on an externally funded project, the panel heard.
The panel heard in January 2020 she discovered she was pregnant and told her line manager before discovering she had an increased risk of pre-eclampsia which can be brought on by stress.
Unfortunately when the UK was hit by the pandemic, the funding to support the work she had been doing ‘vanished’ as it was instead being funnelled into Covid-relief work, the panel heard.
Mrs Law said she had been on various contracts during her five years at the university and she was reassured that bosses ‘had every intention of retaining her in the department’ once the funding expired. Nevertheless, she was pulled into a meeting with her line manager Rachel Lowthian (pictured) who informed her she was being let go
The tribunal was told Mrs Law had been on various contracts during her five years at the university and she was reassured that the University ‘had every intention of retaining her in the department’ once the funding expired.
However, Mrs Lowthian was brought her in for a formal meeting to say her contract would be ending in June, two months before her maternity was due to start in August 2020.
The panel heard: ‘In the context of Mrs Law facing financial difficulty (her husband was undergoing a redundancy process with an unrelated employer) Mrs Lowthian volunteered some advice about securing child benefit, sourcing second-hand baby-clothes and also (although the context for this is less clear) the benefits of a particular type of thermometer and techniques for bathing a baby.
‘She told Mrs Law she would introduce her to another member of staff… whose wife was currently pregnant.’
Although the comments were ‘well intentioned’, Mrs Law found them ‘weird and inappropriate’ and left her wondering whether her redundancy had anything to do with her pregnancy, the panel heard.
The tribunal heard Mrs Lowthian sent her a ‘Babies’ email minutes after the meeting, but Mrs Law ignored it.
Mrs Law then began to look into her redundancy rights and asked about other possible roles.
The panel heard in another meeting: ‘[Mrs Lowthian] suggested that Mrs Law might be able to do marking work from home whilst the baby slept and that if she kept working hard then ‘karma’ would mean things would work out for her.
‘Mrs Law was unhappy that, so far as she was concerned, Mrs Lowthian saw no other outcome than that she would be leaving the University and would not do anything to try to prevent that.’
During the appeal meeting, the panel found Mr Chesser ‘dismissive’ when Mrs Law raised her concern that her pregnancy may have impacted on the process and outlined what she felt were ‘inappropriate’ comments by Mrs Lowthian.
At an employment hearing, held in Manchester, a panel this week ruled that the case was ‘complex’. They accepted that Mrs Law was not selected for redundancy because she was pregnant, but they were not convinced that her employment had to end completely, particularly as others whose funding had expired at the same time were given new roles. (Pictured: University of Cumbria)
Mrs Law referred to statements by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Julie Mennell, PhD, that the university would not permit vulnerable staff to be disproportionately affected by the University’s Covid response.
She explained that she felt she was vulnerable due to her pregnancy.
However, Mr Chesser – who did not give evidence at the tribunal – ‘dismissed’ this comment, the panel heard.
The tribunal was told: ‘He told Mrs Law that the suggestion that her pregnancy may have had an influence on the decision-making process was ‘quite a statement to make’ and appeared to shake his head as she was outlining her concerns.’
When her grievance failed, she then successfully sued the university at a tribunal for pregnancy discrimination and unfair dismissal.
Employment judge Joanne Dunlop concluded: ‘Mrs Lowthian was well-intentioned and [we] believe that this was also apparent to Mrs Law.
‘Mrs Law’s concern was not so much about the advice itself, but about what it said about the redundancy process that Mrs Lowthian was spending the meeting dispensing such advice.
‘It seems Mr Chesser was rejecting Mrs Law’s reasonable point that pregnancy itself creates a vulnerability.
‘Having regard to that context, we find Mr Chesser’s comments were unfavourable treatment on the grounds of her pregnancy.
‘Mr Chesser’s approach to the appeal was perfunctory. Mrs Law had raised serious and difficult issues which merited exploration and explanation at the very least.’
A hearing to determine Mrs Law’s compensation will take place in due course.