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Unfavourable treatment arising from disability cannot be based on mistaken belief

Ms Wood worked as a packer for a logistics company, iForce. Her role consisted of packaging items from work benches in a warehouse in Rotherham. In 2012, Ms Wood was diagnosed with osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition. iForce was aware of this disability and even made reasonable adjustments for her in the role. This included amending her duties and allowing her to work slightly earlier in her shifts because she was struggling due to the effects of cold weather.

In November 2016, a change in work practices occurred at the warehouse, with a view to improving productivity. The packers had originally worked from a single work bench with items delivered to the workers to be packaged. The new practice expected the packers to rotate to more busy work benches. Ms Wood refused to work from a number of benches close to the doors of the warehouse because she felt that they would be colder and make the effects of her disability worse.

The matter was investigated and showed, irrefutably, that there was no material difference in the temperature of any of the benches, regardless of whether they were close to the doors of the warehouse. As such, iForce decided that her explanation for refusing to work at those benches was not reasonable, and her continued refusal to work at the benches therefore amounted to refusal to carry out a reasonable management instruction. The matter progressed to a disciplinary for which Ms Wood was given a final written warning. She appealed this, and it was downgraded to a first written warning on the basis that she was worried and stressed at the time of her refusal.

Ms Wood subsequently brought employment tribunal proceedings, on the basis that her warning amounted to discrimination arising from disability. The ET found in her favour. The warning had been given to her because she refused to comply with an instruction, but she had refused because she, mistakenly, believed that it would adversely affect her condition. However, the EAT allowed the appeal. There had to be a connection between Ms Wood’s refusal to work at the benches near the doors of the warehouse and the disability to succeed in her claim, and this was never actually established. It relied on a mistaken belief that this was the case. Therefore, the ET’s decision was set aside.

What does this mean for you or your business, and what do you need to be doing now?

This case was found to be different to the recent decision made in Grosset, a link to which can be found HERE.

To summarise, in Grosset, the claimant’s actions stemmed from the stress he was suffering, which was in turn caused by his disability. In turn, the employer should have noticed that his actions were caused by his disability. This was not pleaded in this case. The claimant simply relied on her mistaken belief. This case therefore shows the benefit in fully examining the issues. iForce investigated the reasons and could conclusively prove that there was no reason for the claimant to have refused to work in certain areas. This case reinforces that the test is an objective test not a subjective test. In this particular case the claimant’s mistaken belief regarding her health was not sufficient to establish a claim for discrimination arising from disability.

Nevertheless, to avoid the risk it would be beneficial to look at your work practices. Could they put employees at a disadvantage? If so, look to provide support or solutions for them if they feel if they are uncomfortable with the current practice. The EAT did not go as far as to say that a false belief could never amount to something arising from a disability and so there is still a possibility that an employer could leave themselves open to this type of claim.

Recommended Reading

The link to the case from the EAT can be found HERE.

 

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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