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Can a False Belief Give Rise to a Claim for Disability Discrimination?

on Friday, 29 March 2019.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) found that an employee's false belief that working practices would exacerbate her disability, resulting in her refusal to comply and disciplinary action, was not sufficient to establish disability discrimination.

The Facts - iForce Ltd v Wood

Ms Wood was employed by iForce Ltd in one of its warehouses, packing items at a fixed bench. She had osteoarthritis, a disability under the Equality Act 2010. iForce changed its working practices so that workers were required to move between benches to follow the work. Ms Wood refused to comply with instructions to sit at benches near the doors to the warehouse on the basis that these benches were more cold and damp and would exacerbate her condition. iForce conducted tests which revealed that there was no material difference in temperature, however Ms Wood continued to refuse to work at certain benches and so was subjected to disciplinary action.

Ms Wood made a claim to the Employment Tribunal (ET) for discrimination arising from disability. This occurs where one party treats another party unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of that other person's disability.

The ET found that iForce had treated Ms Wood unfavourably by issuing her with a written warning and that this unfavourable treatment was because of something (the refusal to work at certain benches) arising in consequence of her disability. The ET therefore found that iForce had discriminated against Ms Wood.

iForce appealed.

The EAT's Decision

Crucially, the ET's reasoning had been that the refusal to work at certain benches was because Ms Wood (incorrectly) believed compliance would affect her health, and therefore arose in consequence of her disability.

The EAT disagreed that the refusal to work at certain benches arose in consequence of Ms Wood's disability. Ms Wood's false belief was not a result of her disability, and so there was no causal connection between her disability and her refusal to work at certain benches.

The EAT acknowledged that under certain circumstances a false belief could be the result of a disability, for example where that disability resulted in pain or stress and thereby an impairment of judgment. However there was no evidence to suggest that his was what had happened in this case.

The EAT therefore overturned the ET's decision and found that iForce had not discriminated against Ms Wood.

Best Practice

There is a wide scope for finding the necessary causal connection between a person's disability and the "something" which results in unfavourable treatment, and that causal connection may involve several links.

However it is an objective test, not a subjective one. An employer's failure to perceive a connection or, as this case makes clear, an employee's false belief that there is a connection will not impact on whether or not a connection actually does exist.

Employers must of course carefully examine their actions in respect of any employee who suffers from a disability, to ensure that the nature of their treatment of their employee does not arise from the employee's disability. Whilst all cases will turn on their individual facts, this case suggests that an employee's erroneous belief regarding their health will not generally be sufficient to establish a claim for discrimination arising from disability.

For more information, please contact Eleanor Boyd in our Employment Law team on 020 7665 0940.

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