The Employment Appeal Tribunal (“EAT”) has confirmed in its decision in iForce Ltd v Wood that a warning issued to a disabled employee because of her refusal to comply with an instruction to move workstations did not constitute discrimination arising from disability. This was because there was no objective link between the employee’s disability and her refusal to move.
Discrimination arising from disability
Discrimination arising from disability occurs where an employer treats an employee unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of the employee’s disability. Recent case law has shown that the link between the disability and the ‘something’ can be very tenuous and can involve several links (i.e. the ‘something’ need not be directly caused by the disability).
Ms Wood worked in the warehouse of logistics company iForce Ltd (“iForce”). Ms Wood’s role initially involved packing items at a fixed bench, until iForce began to require its staff to move between workstations. Ms Wood was disabled due to osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition aggravated by cold and damp environments. Ms Wood believed that moving to a bench near the loading doors would be colder and damper than other workstations. As such, she refused her employer’s instructions to move, despite iForce’s extensive investigations finding no material difference in temperature, wind chill or humidity in different locations throughout the warehouse.
iForce found Ms Wood’s behaviour to be unreasonable and issued her with a written warning. Ms Wood brought a complaint in the employment tribunal, claiming discrimination arising from disability.
The employment tribunal initially found in favour of Ms Wood, concluding that iForce giving the written warning in these circumstances constituted unfavourable treatment. The tribunal held that such treatment was due to “something” (i.e. the refusal to move benches), which arose because she believed, albeit mistakenly, that it would exacerbate her condition and that was a consequence of her disability. iForce appealed the decision.
The EAT allowed the appeal, finding that the necessary causal connection between the ‘something’ and Ms Wood’s disability could not be established. Having received reassurances from iForce about the environmental conditions, Ms Wood’s osteoarthritis did not directly lead her to refuse to move workstations.
This decision should help to clarify the dividing line of causation in disability discrimination claims. In particular, it confirms that an employee’s perception that unfavourable treatment took place due to something arising from their disability is not sufficient in itself to establish the necessary connection – it is an objective test and there must be an actual causal link.
This is a case bucking the current trend of recent case law that has all been moving in the direction of widening the concept of the link between the ‘something’ and the relevant disability. However, had Ms Wood argued that her osteoarthritis caused her stress and that this stress had impaired her judgement and caused her refusal to move stations, she may have been able to show the relevant causative link in any event.
It should be remembered that even if an employee gets over this first hurdle, discrimination arising from disability claims may be defended by employers where they can show that the treatment complained of is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.