Tuesday 10 December 2013

Managing serial complainants

Managing serial complainants is a challenge for all public administrators. Dealing with these complainants is resource and time intensive and can pose difficulties if a particular complainant is aggressive or abusive towards staff.

Administrators need to take care in the strategies they adopt to deal with complainants, especially if complainants' behaviour is symptomatic of any underlying disability.

In the recent VCAT decision of Slattery v Manningham City Council, a complainant successfully claimed that the Manningham City Council (Council) had directly discriminated against him on the ground of disability in banning him from all Council buildings, breaching s 44 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (EO Act).

The case is significant because it is one of the first decisions to consider how the test for direct discrimination operates under the EO Act.

Since 1998, Mr Slattery had made thousands of written and verbal complaints to the Council in relation to matters Mr Slattery had identified as 'safety issues'. Many of Mr Slattery's complaints were derogatory or offensive towards Councillors or Council staff. Over a fifteen year period, there were a handful of physical altercations between Mr Slattery and Council staff members. Council estimated that it spent approximately $10,000 per year dealing with Mr Slattery's complaints. In April 2009, the Council imposed the ban on Mr Slattery.

Mr Slattery had a number of diagnosed disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder and a brain injury following a stroke, however has not received treatment for any of these conditions for a number of years. Council had, at one stage, engaged the assistance of a psychiatrist, to formulate strategies for dealing with Mr Slattery.

Senior Member Nihill first considered what constituted unfavourable treatment within the definition of direct discrimination, and whether it was necessary to carry out a comparative analysis to determine if a person has been treated unfavourably because of a protected attribute (in this case, a disability).

SM Nihill's starting point was the Court of Appeal's decision in Aitken v State of Victoria, where the Court of Appeal accepted that the question as to whether a comparative analysis is required under the EO Act remains an unresolved question of law in Victoria.

Following a discussion of helpful case law, interpretation legislation and extrinsic material, SM Nihill concluded that the definition of direct discrimination in the EO Act does not require a comparator (a conclusion also reached in the recent VCAT decision on Victoria Police's beard policy). Rather, what is required is an analysis of the impact of treatment on the person complaining of it. This analysis may be informed by the treatment afforded to others, however, such a consideration is not required under section 8 of the EO Act.

SM Nihill formed the view that Council's maintenance of the ban, preventing Mr Slattery from accessing services in any building owned, occupied or managed by Council, particularly after Mr Slattery requested that the ban be lifted in November 2012, constituted unfavourable treatment.

SM Nihill next went on to consider whether the unfavourable treatment of Mr Slattery was because he had a protected attribute.

The Tribunal heard psychiatric evidence from Dr Farnbach, who had been Mr Slattery's treating psychiatrist. Dr Farnbach gave evidence that as a result of his PTSD and impulse control disorder, Mr Slattery experienced a strong and urgent compulsion to make reports to Council, particularly about public safety and about 'people doing the right thing'. After reports were made, Mr Slattery would experience relief.

SM Nihill concluded, on the basis of Dr Farnbach's evidence that Mr Slattery's tendency to complain compulsively is a symptom of his disabilities, and therefore fell within the definition of disability contained in s 4 of the EO Act.

Given, that Mr Slattery's behaviour in compulsively complaining to the Council, was a result of his disability, and that one of the reasons that Council had imposed the ban was to 'manage' Mr Slattery, SM Nihill concluded that Mr Slattery's disability was a substantial reason for the Council's unfavourable treatment of Mr Slattery, and therefore that Mr Slattery had been the subject of direct discrimination by the Council.

The Council was unsuccessful in arguing that an exception under ss 75 or 86 of the EO Act applied (that is, that it was necessary to impose the ban on Mr Slattery to protect the health and safety of Councillors, Council staff and the wider public).

The question of remedies was left to be discussed by the parties in a compulsory conference.

If you are in the Victorian Government and would like advice on the EO Act or this case, please contact:

Penina Berkovic
Principal Solicitor
t 8684 0226

Bruce Chen
Senior Solicitor
t 8684 0425

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