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Managers wrongly dismissed doctor with PTSD, tribunal rules

Published on: 21 Jul 2023

A trust breached its own internal illness policy when managers sacked a doctor who had PTSD and had been drunk at work, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Judges criticised the move as a “complete failure” by East and North Hertfordshire Trust when Vladimir Filipovich was dismissed in July 2019.

Dr Filipovich was summoned to a hearing following allegations he had been drunk at work, did not disclose a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder to his employer, and failed to take a recommended prescription of Citalopram.

In a decision published this month, the tribunal sharply criticised how the trust’s investigator handled the Citalopram claim, concluding he “did nothing to investigate the matter whatsoever”, and found ENHT had “appeared to simply take legal advice” on how to dismiss Dr Filipovich.

The tribunal also concluded ENHT “stopped following” its own illness policy, which aimed to get practitioners to return to work, and “abandoned” its requirement to obtain the latest occupational advice.

Employment judge Louise Brown said: “It was found by this tribunal that any reasonable employer that had adjourned to obtain advice from occupational health, as to [his] current state of health before they could come to a decision as to whether he might be able to return to work, would have done so.

“It amounted to a wholesale failure by [ENHT] to undertake a reasonable investigation within the band of reasonable investigations of any other reasonable employer, and was a complete failure to follow their own internal illness policy.”

The tribunal heard Dr Filipovich was a trauma surgeon in field hospitals during the Bosnian war, which lasted from 1992 until 1995, before joining ENHT as a staff grade doctor in trauma and orthopaedics four years later. The hearing was told he suffered from PTSD symptoms during the course of his employment and received a diagnosis in November 2016.

The judgement detailed two instances where he was found to be drunk at work, which was not disputed at the tribunal, but which judges believed was due to “extreme stress” caused by the trust’s “poor treatment of him”. 

Judge Brown said: “We did not find he knowingly attended work aware that he was a danger to patients, but instead we found that his disability caused him to lose control over his urge to soothe himself with [a] drink.”

Trust ‘abandoned’ its own policy

Dr Filipovich was asked to attend a disciplinary hearing in August 2018 following allegations of being drunk at work, failing to disclose his PTSD and not taking prescribed Citalopram, which the trust said each constituted gross misconduct and could lead to dismissal.

But it was revealed under cross-examination that the trust’s investigator had not obtained medical evidence Dr Filipovich had failed to take his medication. The tribunal heard he had in fact been changed to another medication, sertraline, due to side effects.

Judges described the Citalopram claim as “flimsy and unsubstantiated”, and added: “There was a wholesale failure by the investigator [Thomas] Samuel to ask further questions on this issue after the brief exchange on it during the investigation interview.”

It was also concluded that a “short delay” of two months between Dr Filipovich’s PTSD diagnosis, and the trust being informed, was not tantamount to gross misconduct.

There were also “troubling” inconsistencies between trust staff about why the disciplinary hearing was paused by the trust for 10 months.

Josie Potts, who was then head of HR, had said it was delayed to try to obtain historical health records to understand whether PTSD played a role in Dr Filipovich’s behaviour.

However, Judge Brown said this was “absurd”, adding: “Where an employee faces the loss of his whole occupation and reputation in his field, we find the reliance on irrelevant and out-of-date medical records [to be] outside the range of any reasonable investigation that any reasonable employer would have carried out”.

The tribunal upheld Dr Filipovich’s claim of unfair dismissal but his two other claims of discrimination, and discrimination arising from his PTSD diagnosis, were not. HSJ has approached him for comment.

An ENHT spokesman said the trust accepts the tribunal’s findings and has since revised its sickness absence policy.

A statement added: “The judgement contains valuable feedback and lessons which continue to support us in improving staff experience through formal matters relating to absence, capability or disciplinary.

“We are unable to comment further at this time.”