No disability discrimination where employee refused to move workstations in mistaken belief this would exacerbate her osteoarthritis
An employee’s mistaken belief that moving her workstation would exacerbate her osteoarthritis (which led to her receiving a written warning after refusing to obey an instruction to do so) did not establish unfavourable treatment because of something arising from her disability under s.15 of the Equality Act 2010.
In iForce Ltd v Wood, Ms Wood worked for iForce Ltd at one of its warehouses packing items at a fixed workbench. She had osteoarthritis, which was a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Her condition worsened in cold, damp weather.
iForce changed its working practices in 2016, which meant Ms Wood would have to move between workbenches. She refused to work at the end-benches nearest the loading doors as she believed it would be colder and damper there, worsening her osteoarthritis. However, it turned out she was wrong, as iForce’s investigation found there was no material difference in temperature and humidity throughout the warehouse.
iForce considered Ms Wood’s refusal to obey its instruction unreasonable and issued her with a final written warning (downgraded on appeal to a written warning). She claimed this warning was unfavourable treatment because of something arising out of her disability. She therefore needed to show that iForce issued the warning because of something arising in consequence of her disability.
The employment tribunal ruled that it had. iForce gave the written warning because she refused to comply with an instruction to work on benches near the loading doors, which in turn arose because she believed that it would adversely affect her condition (albeit this belief was mistaken).
iForce appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).
The EAT allowed the appeal.
While a broad approach applies when establishing whether there is a causal connection between the ‘something’ (in this case, her refusal to work on benches near the loading doors) and the underlying disability, there still needs to be a connection.
A connection had not been established in this case. The employment tribunal had not found that iForce was requiring Ms Wood to work in colder and damper conditions that might impact upon her disability. Instead, it had found that she was mistaken in her belief that this was the case. In addition, the employment tribunal had not found that her mistaken belief was caused by her disability (for example where disability leads to an employee suffering stress which impairs their judgment).
Ms Wood’s claim for discrimination arising from disability therefore failed.
This decision provides a welcome restriction for employers on the scope of claims for discrimination arising from disability. Previous cases have indicated that the causation test is loose. For example, in City of York Council v Grosset a teacher who suffered from cystic fibrosis succeeded in a claim when he was dismissed for showing an 18-rated film to a class of 15 year old pupils; and in Risby v London Borough of Waltham Forest the causal connection was met when Mr Risby, who suffered from paraplegia and was in a wheelchair, was dismissed after he lost his temper and verbally abused a colleague when a course venue was moved to a wheelchair-inaccessible location by his employer.
The decision in Wood makes it clear that there needs to be an actual causal link between the unfavourable treatment and the ‘something’ arising from the disability. A perceived connection is not enough – unless that perception results in some way from the disability (for example where disability leads to stress which impairs an employee’s judgment).
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