Mistaken belief found insufficient to amount to disability discrimination

Article

21 March, 2019

In iForce Ltd v Wood, the Employment Appeal Tribunal held that an employee's mistaken belief that her condition was under threat by working conditions did not establish unfavourable treatment due to a disability pursuant to s.15 of the Equality Act 2010. An actual rather than a perceived causal connection must be identified for a claim to succeed.

The Respondent had been employed by the Appellant, a logistics company, since 1993. She was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in 2012, a degenerative condition and disability attracting the protection of the Equality Act 2010. Her condition deteriorated and the Appellant altered her duties to include only packing work from 2014/5. The condition can be exacerbated by cold or damp weather. A change in practice required staff to rotate workbenches to follow the packing work. The Respondent refused to work at benches adjacent to doors used by vehicles entering and leaving the warehouse as she believed that she was exposed to cold and damp air when the doors were opened, potentially exacerbating her condition.

The Appellant carried out a series of investigations which demonstrated that there was no temperature differential or humidity issues at the benches adjacent to the doors. Despite this, the Respondent continued to refuse to work at the end-benches nearest the loading doors reiterating her belief it would be colder and damper exacerbating her osteoarthritis. The Appellant issued a final written warning (subsequently downgraded to a written warning) and the Respondent issued tribunal proceedings on the grounds of disability discrimination contrary to s.15 of the Equality Act 2010. In order for an employee to establish disability discrimination, it is necessary to show that it has treated the employee unfavourably as a result of something arising as consequence of the employee's disability.

Although her belief that her condition could be affected by the proposed working pattern was mistaken, her claim was successful as the tribunal found that the warning amounted to unfavourable treatment arising in consequence of her disability.

The Appellant then launched an appeal. The Employment Appeal Tribunal explained that a broad approach applies when establishing whether a causal connection exists for the purposes of the Act. Although the connection may involve several links as opposed to an immediate nexus, there had to be some connection between the act allegedly constituting discrimination and the disability. At first instance, the tribunal did not accept that the investigation carried out by the respondent had been incorrect, and that the Respondent would have been required to endure the alleged conditions at risk to her health. In actual fact, it found that the Respondent was mistaken in her belief. The EAT therefore, could not ascertain any causal link to explain the tribunal's finding in favour of the Respondent and the appeal was granted.

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