Establishing a ‘causal link’ between disability and conduct

In the case of iForce Ltd v Wood, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) were tasked with determining whether there was enough of a causal connection between an employee’s disability and their conduct to support a disability discrimination claim.

Wood was a warehouse operative who was classed as disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 due to osteoarthritis. She believed that this condition worsened in cold and damp weather; a belief that was supported by her GP.

The organisation decided to introduce a change in its working practices which meant staff were required to work between benches in the warehouse and therefore move around the working area, rather than stay in one fixed position.

iForce proceeded to investigate this by installing thermometers and found evidence to show that the claimant’s beliefs were incorrect: the temperature and humidity levels were not materially different throughout the warehouse. Because of this, iForce did not accept that the employee had provided a reasonable explanation for her refusal and issued her with a final written warning, which was later downgraded to a warning after the organisation accepted her actions were likely due to her worry and stress.

Despite this, the employee proceeded to bring a claim for disability discrimination to an employment tribunal (ET). She cited section 15 of the Equality Act, claiming that the issuing of a final written warning had subjected her to a detriment because of something arising as a consequence of her disability. Whilst the ET accepted that the employee mistakenly believed she would be placed in colder, damper conditions, they stated that her refusal to accept the instruction was solely due a genuine belief that it would have an adverse impact on her due to her disability. Therefore, to issue a written warning for this would qualify as discrimination arising as a consequence of a disability.

iForce appealed this decision to the EAT who overturned the ET’s original ruling. They outlined that, when determining whether the employee had suffered a detriment as a consequence of her disability, there needed to be a connection between her refusal to follow management instructions, and the disability.

Although the claimant was right to state working in colder, damper conditions would exacerbate her condition, the employer had provided evidence to show that there would be no difference in her working conditions. Therefore, Wood’s refusal to follow the instruction was not a direct consequence of her disability as no causal link had been established that linked her disability to her belief.

This outcome demonstrates how the onus is placed on employees to clearly establish a causal link between the action that led to the detrimental treatment and their disability. Having said this, employers should remember to take care when making changes to the working environment of a disabled employee and be prepared to make reasonable adjustments where necessary to avoid potential discrimination claims.

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