In the recent decision of Pirsz v Ryanair, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) emphasised that in discrimination cases, an employee must produce evidence from which an inference of discrimination can be drawn. This is known as making a ‘prima facie’ case. Only then does the burden of proof shift to the employer to defend the claim.
Mr Pirsz was a Polish national who was dismissed from his employment with Ryanair following a period of long-term sickness absence. He argued that he was dismissed on grounds of disability and race.
Mr Pirsz submitted that he suffered depression and that Ryanair was aware of this because it was referenced in his medical certificates. He claimed he had therefore been dismissed on grounds of his disability.
Mr Pirsz further stated that he had asked Ryanair to provide him with records of previous dismissals which, he believed, would establish whether he had also been dismissed because of his race.
Under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015, an employee who believes he or she has been discriminated against may request information from his or her employer relating to the employer’s treatment of other comparable employees. There is no obligation on an employer to respond, but the WRC can draw adverse inferences where an employer ignores the request.
Mr Pirsz argued that Ryanair’s refusal to provide the records gave rise to a presumption of discrimination.
Ryanair argued that Mr Pirsz had failed to produce any evidence to support his claim. It stated that Mr Pirsz was dismissed because he had been absent for 17 months and was unable to offer any indication of when he might be fit to return to work. Ryanair stated that the reason for his dismissal was explained to him, in detail, in his dismissal letter. It also gave evidence that it had sought to engage with Mr Pirsz in relation to his absence, but that Mr Pirsz had refused to do so.
It submitted that Mr Pirsz was not entitled to details of other dismissals carried out by the airline just because he made a bare allegation of discrimination, without offering any evidence to support his claim.
In a decision which will be welcomed by many employers, the WRC dismissed both complaints. The WRC was highly critical of Mr Pirsz, noting that “it is a very serious matter for an employee to accuse their employer of breaking the law”. It emphasised that in discrimination cases, an employee must provide evidence to establish a stateable case. This is because employers are entitled to know “with reasonable clarity” the nature of the case against them.
Mr Pirsz, however, had failed to provide “any evidence whatsoever” of discrimination. The WRC commented that his request for records of Ryanair dismissals was nothing more than a “fishing exercise” and “an abuse of the system”. In such circumstances, Ryanair had no case to answer.
The Pirsz decision is a useful reminder that it is not enough to make a bare allegation of discrimination against an employer. Employers are entitled, as a matter of basic fairness, to know the case against them. An employee must therefore be in a position to produce sufficient evidence to make a stateable case, before the burden of proof will shift to the employer to defend the claim.
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