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Termination of actor's contract due to views on homosexuality was not direct discrimination

on Wednesday, 13 March 2024.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has found that a claimant's contract was terminated due to adverse publicity generated by her views expressed on social media, rather than because of the views themselves.

What was the factual background to the case?

In the case of Omooba v Michael Garrett Associates Ltd and anor, the claimant, Seyi Omooba, was an actor who had been cast in the role of Celie in The Color Purple. The claimant did not realise at the time she was cast that the character is a lesbian who has a physical relationship with a woman.

After the casting announcement was made, a social media storm developed in response to an old social media post of the claimant's, which was re-shared. In the post, the claimant expressed her belief that homosexuality was a sin. Ultimately, both the theatre and the claimant's agent terminated their contracts with her. She brought claims of religion and belief discrimination and harassment, as well as for breach of contract.

The Tribunal dismissed the claimant's claims and she appealed to the EAT.

EAT decision

The EAT dismissed the claimant's appeal. In relation to the discrimination claim, the issue to be determined was the reason for the claimant's treatment. The EAT upheld the Tribunal's findings that the reason for the termination of the claimant's contract was the social media controversy surrounding her social media posts. The audience's knowledge of the claimant's views had led to concerns about how convincing her performance could be, and there were additional concerns about reputational damage, or that the production could be interrupted or boycotted. The situation could potentially have been resolved had the claimant issued a convincing public statement, but she had refused to do so. Taking all this into account, the social media storm had commercial consequences for the production, and this prompted the termination of the claimant's contract. Likewise, the agency had also terminated its contract with the claimant for commercial reasons, and also because of its belief that the claimant had breached the implied term of good faith in respect of her actions in accepting the role in the first place, as she knew about the possibility of portraying a lesbian relationship and had not sought to clarify this before accepting the part.

The claimant had sought to argue that since the social media controversy had arisen as a consequence of her belief, her belief was the operative reason for her treatment. The EAT rejected this argument, holding that the reason for the treatment was not the manifestation of the claimant's belief, but rather the consequences of the manifestation.

The EAT also dismissed the claimant's appeal against the Tribunal's rejection of her breach of contract claim. She had been offered her full fee, so had not suffered financial loss. In failing to familiarize herself with the requirements of the role before accepting the part, the EAT found that the claimant had herself committed a repudiatory breach of contract and had breached the implied term of good faith, as the Tribunal had found.

Learning points

This case is an interesting addition to the growing body of case law on protected beliefs. Much of the recent case law in this area has focused on when the manifestation of a protected belief is appropriate or inappropriate. This case adopts a different focus, in that it is concerned with the commercial consequences of the manifestation of a protected belief, rather than the manifestation of the belief itself.

For more information or advice, please contact Ellen Netto in our Employment team on 0117 314 5377, or complete the form below.

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