22nd September, 2020
Is an employer’s thought process relevant when determining discrimination arising from a disability?
Yes it is, according to the Court of Appeal’s ruling in the case of Robinson v Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers could be liable for discrimination if the facts show that an employee was treated unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of their disability.
A common example is where an employee faces unfavourable treatment due to disability-related absences. This is different from direct discrimination where an employee has suffered unfavourable treatment because of their disability.
Elaine Robinson (the Claimant) worked for DWP (the Respondent) as an administrative officer within the debt management department. The Claimant suffered blurred vision and bad migraines which met the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010. The Respondent undertook a risk assessment where screen-magnification software was recommended to assist the Claimant; however, the software was incompatible with the system currently in operation. After several unsuccessful attempts to address this, the Respondent moved the Claimant to a temporary paper-based role within the same department.
The Claimant lodged a grievance stating that the Respondent had delayed implementing the required adjustments and failed to provide her with a suitable workstation. The Claimant’s grievance was upheld however the Respondent refused to provide the Claimant compensation as requested. The Claimant issued court proceedings. The Claimant claimed she had suffered discrimination as a result of her disability because the Respondent had delayed in dealing with her grievances fully and providing her with a suitable work station both of which caused her considerable stress.
At first instance, the Employment Tribunal found that the Respondent had acted discriminatory as “but for” the Claimant’s disability she would not have faced delays and been in the unfavourable situation.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal disagreed and believed the Employment Tribunal had erred in law. The Claimant appealed this decision.
The Court of Appeal
The appeal was dismissed. Whilst it was agreed that the Claimant suffered unfavourable treatment (delays) and detriment (stress caused to the Claimant) as a result of the Respondent’s behaviour, the Court of Appeal could not support findings that the delays were due to something related to the Claimant’s disability. In other words, the Claimant failed to establish a causal link between the unfavourable treatment and her disability. The Employment Tribunal had therefore erred in its application. The Court of Appeal stated that it is important to consider the thought process and motives behind the Respondent’s unfavourable treatment when making such a claim.
Tips for employers
Whilst the Respondent was successful in defending this particular claim, this case serves as a reminder for employers to deal with all requests and concerns in a timely manner – particularly when making reasonable adjustments to employees with a disability.
Head of Team and Partner
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