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IT Specialist on Long-Term Sick Leave Loses Suit Against IBM Over Raise Denial

Published December 30, 2023
7 months ago

In a unique case that has captured the attention of both employment rights advocates and corporate entities, Ian Clifford, a UK man previously employed by the tech giant IBM, was thrust into the limelight following his lengthy legal battle with his former employer. Clifford, who had been on sick leave for an extraordinary period of 15 years, sought legal recourse against IBM for what he claimed was "disability discrimination" – a dispute centered around the non-increment of his disability payments over the years, which he argued had not kept pace with inflation, thereby reducing his purchasing power.

Ian Clifford's journey with IBM began in 2000 when he joined Lotus Development, which was acquired by IBM five years prior. His trajectory took an unexpected turn in September 2008 when he went on sick leave and was subsequently medically retired. Despite his retirement from active service, Clifford continued to receive payments equivalent to roughly R1.3 million annually as part of IBM’s disability plan, which constituted 75 percent of his pre-agreed income.

Clifford aired his grievances initially in 2013 over holiday pay disputes and the static nature of his wage despite rising living costs. In response, IBM provided a "compromise agreement," confirming Clifford's fixed salary under the company’s disability plan, thereby eliminating any obligation of work from Clifford until his recovery, retirement, or death.

Deciding to take his fight against what he perceived as unfair treatment to the courts, Clifford sued IBM at a UK employment tribunal in 2022, contending that by not indexing his disability payments to inflation, IBM was effectively discriminating against him on the basis of his disability. In his view, expecting an employee to subsist on "forever frozen" payments failed to provide the security that the disability plan was designed to ensure.

However, the outcome of Clifford’s legal tussle proved unfavorable to his cause. Employment Judge Paul Housego ruled against Clifford's claims, stating that the disagreement over the generosity of the plan held no grounding in disability discrimination. The judge pointed out that the disability plan primarily exists to benefit disabled employees and that the lack of payment increases was not a result of discrimination based on disability. Consequently, Clifford's case was dismissed by the tribunal.

This case has raised crucial questions about the extent of an employer's obligation to ensure the financial security of its disabled ex-employees, especially against the backdrop of changing economic circumstances. While companies provide disability plans to offer employees assurance in the event of unforeseen health complications, the limits of these plans and their adaptability to inflationary pressures remain hotly debated topics.

For now, the judgment serves as a legal precedent, indicating that unless explicitly stipulated in contractual agreements, employees on long-term disability leave should not expect their income to be adjusted in line with inflation over time.

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