"'Medically, whether Mrs Laird had an ongoing medical condition is a difficult question,' said the ruling. 'She had a vulnerability to depression but not one that was manifesting itself at that time. The vulnerability was ongoing but not the depression'."
"'It is standard practice to go on taking anti-depressants for a considerable period after there has been a period of depression. It is not in itself indicative of any ongoing problem, said the judgment. 'This was the or at least a correct answer'."http://www.out-law.com/page-10117
Council MD did not lie about health in £1m claim, says High Court
OUT-LAW News, 23/06/2009
The managing director of a local authority did not mislead her employer when she failed to tell them that she had suffered from depression, the High Court has ruled. She will not have to repay the nearly £1 million claimed from her by the council.
Christine Laird hit the headlines earlier this year when she was sued by her former employer Cheltenham Borough Council for nearly £1m in a claim that she had misled it in her job application. Laird was the managing director of the Council.
The High Court has said that she did not deliberately mislead the Council in answering a medical questionnaire, even though she made no mention of previous depressive episodes.
Laird's time at the Council was marked by a series of increasingly bitter disputes with councillors, staff and unions and she spent much of her tenure off sick with stress. Unions claimed she bullied staff and the Council leader told a colleague that her behaviour had the Council "at breaking point".
The High Court said that Laird did not directly lie, and that the questions asked by the Council were capable of being answered in different ways. Laird's answers were not untruthful, it said.
The Council had asked 'do you normally enjoy good health', to which Laird had answered 'yes'. "When depressed she did not enjoy good health. When not depressed, she did. But she was only depressed for limited periods prior to January 2002 and this was not her 'normal' state of health," said the ruling. "A reasonable person in Mrs Laird's position would regard herself as normally enjoying good health. This was the or at least a correct answer."
Laird answered 'no' to the question 'do you have a physical or mental impairment?', which the Court also said was a correct answer. "She did not have an impairment in the technical sense – i.e. under the Mental Health Act or the [Disability Discrimination Act]," it said. "She had a vulnerability to episodes of depressive disorder but she did not have an ongoing depressive disorder…this was the or at least a correct answer."
Laird, who was taking anti-depressant medicine, also declared that she had no ongoing medical condition which would affect her employment.
"Medically, whether Mrs Laird had an ongoing medical condition is a difficult question," said the ruling. "She had a vulnerability to depression but not one that was manifesting itself at that time. The vulnerability was ongoing but not the depression."
"It is standard practice to go on taking anti-depressants for a considerable period after there has been a period of depression. It is not in itself indicative of any ongoing problem," said the judgment. "This was the or at least a correct answer."
The Court found that regardless of her actual condition, Laird's assessment of her health was honest. "For this purpose what matters is Mrs Laird's understanding of her medical condition rather than her actual condition. Her understanding was that she had suffered attacks of anxiety and stress due to specific events, but not that she had suffered or was suffering from a depressive disorder," said the ruling.
The Court said that Laird had not filled out the questionnaire fraudulently, nor had she wilfully withheld important information.
"Given the ambiguity of the questions asked and Mrs Laird's reasonable understanding of her medical history, as I have found it to be, it was not negligent of her to answer the questions as she did," said Mr Justice Hamblen in his ruling.
Laird had argued that the offer of a job was unconditional, and so the medical report was irrelevant. The Court rejected that and found that the job offer was conditional on her medical fitness, but that she had filled in the questionnaire honestly and without fraud or negligence, so the Council's claim failed.
The Court found that if Laird had disclosed her medical history she probably would not have been offered the job, because she was offered it after winning a Council vote of just 18 votes to 17.
Simon Horsfield is an employment law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM. He said that the Council's claim that it would not have employed Laird could lead it to fall foul of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
"Depression itself is capable of amounting to a disability. Had this woman disclosed her depression then it seems to me it wouldn't automatically to have been open to the local authority to refuse to employ her just because she suffered from depression. That would have given rise to a disability discrimination claim," he said.
"It seems to me that it's going to be very difficult for the Council to turn round and say that they would not have entered into this contract just because this woman is depressed, and to do so I think they're treading a very fine line between saying we would automatically have discriminated against this woman and not employed her," he said.
The Court, though, said that in this case the facts meant that such a case would have been unlikely. It said that had Laird not been offered the job on the grounds of her past depression she would not have been able to make a claim for discrimination under the DDA because by her own evidence she was not disabled at the time of applying for the job.
"It was common ground that she was not 'disabled' at that time and therefore that there would have been no breach of duty," the Court ruled.
See: The ruling