Discrimination arising from disability: employee’s mistaken belief and her disability

Summary

In iForce Ltd v Wood the EAT held that a disabled employee’s mistaken belief that moving workstations would exacerbate her osteoarthritis, which led her to refuse to obey an instruction resulting in a written warning, did not establish unfavourable treatment because of something arising from a disability under section 15 of the Equality Act 2010.

Facts

Ms Wood worked within one of iForce Ltd’s warehouses packaging items at a fixed work bench. She had osteoarthritis which worsened in cold and damp weather. This is a degenerative condition and is considered as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

iForce changed its working practices to require employees to move between benches in the warehouse Ms Wood refused to work at the bench nearest the loading doors as she felt this would exacerbate her osteoarthritis due to increased draughts, cold and damp,. This was found to be incorrect following iForce’s extensive investigations, which showed that there was no material difference in temperature, humidity or wind chill factor at any benches within the warehouse. iForce considered her refusal to work at that bench as refusal to obey instructions and issued her with a written warning.

Ms Wood brought Employment Tribunal (ET) proceedings alleging disability discrimination.

Outcome

The ET upheld her claim, finding that the warning amounted to unfavourable treatment, which arose in consequence of her disability. The warning was given because she refused to work in a certain way, and this refusal arose because of Ms Wood’s mistaken belief that working in that particular area would adversely affect her disability. This was despite the fact that the ET accepted the finding that iForce were not in fact requiring the employee to work in colder and damper conditions. iForce appealed.

On appeal, the Claimant’s claim was rejected. The EAT rejected the notion that the essential components of disability discrimination had been established. While a broad approach applies when establishing whether there is a causal connection between the “something” (here the refusal to work) and the underlying disability of the Claimant, for the purposes of a claim for disability discrimination under section 15, there still had to be a connection between the two. This connection was not established in Ms Wood’s case.

Furthermore, it had not been established that the employee’s judgement in this regard had been impaired as a result of her disability. Critically the ET had failed to explain how it had concluded that this erroneous belief of Ms Wood arose in consequence of her disability. Accordingly the claim for disability discrimination had to fail.

Implications

This case provides a useful example of where the line may fall in determining causation in the context of disability discrimination claims. It confirms that the connection between the unfavourable treatment and the "something" may be a loose one, but there must be a connection between whatever led to the unfavourable treatment and the disability. It goes even further, to highlight that an employee’s perceived connection between the unfavourable treatment and the “something” will not be sufficient.

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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