169: No disability discrimination where employee’s claim was based on her mistaken belief that moving workstations would exacerbate her osteoarthritis
Under the Equality Act 2010, discrimination arising from disability occurs where an employee is treated unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of their disability, and the employer cannot show that the treatment is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (Section 15).
In iForce Ltd v Wood, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (the EAT) had to consider whether an employee’s mistaken belief that moving workstations would exacerbate her condition was sufficient to establish causation for the purposes of a discrimination arising from disability claim.
Ms Wood worked for iForce Ltd in its warehouse, packing goods at a fixed workbench. She had osteoarthritis, which is a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Her condition worsened in cold, damp weather. Following a change in working practices, Ms Wood was required to move between workbenches rather than staying in one place. She refused to work at the benches nearest the loading doors because she believed that draughts would make it colder and damper there, exacerbating her osteoarthritis.
Extensive investigations showed that there was no material difference in humidity or temperature throughout the warehouse, so her belief was erroneous. Ms Wood was issued with a written warning for refusing to obey a reasonable instruction, and she brought a claim for discrimination arising from disability.
The Employment Tribunal upheld Ms Wood’s claim, finding that the warning had been given because she refused to comply with an instruction, which in turn was due to her belief that this would adversely affect her disability. The warning therefore amounted to unfavourable treatment arising in consequence of her disability.
The EAT has now allowed the company’s appeal. In order to establish a claim under section 15 of the Equality Act 2010, there had to be a connection between Ms Wood’s refusal to work next to the loading doors and her disability. The Employment Tribunal had found that Ms Wood was mistaken in her belief that working next to the loading doors would adversely affect her condition. There was therefore no causal connection between her disability and the belief which led her to refuse to accept her employer’s instruction, resulting in the written warning.
It is clear from previous cases that Tribunals will take a broad approach when deciding whether there is a causal connection between the unfavourable treatment and the ‘something’ arising in consequence of the disability, and that this connection may involve several links. This decision confirms that a perceived connection based on an employee’s mistaken belief will not be sufficient. It is important to note that a causal link could still be established in this situation if the employee’s judgment was impaired due to their disability, for example, if Ms Wood had been unable to accept the outcome of the company’s investigations because she was suffering from severe pain or stress due to her condition. However, this was not how Ms Wood had put her case.