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Limits placed on protection afforded to disabled employees

Employment Law

A few months ago, we reported on the case of City of York Council v Grosset.  Here, the council was found to have committed an act of disability discrimination for dismissing a teacher who showed his 15-year-old students an 18-rated horror film.  The tribunals concluded that the teacher’s decision to show the movie was connected with his disability, which had been exacerbated by the stress to which he had been subjected at school. Some might question whether this case stretches the protection afforded to disabled workers a little too far.  However, the recent case of iForce Ltd v Wood suggests there are limits!

The facts

Ms Wood suffered from osteoarthritis. As is common, her symptoms became worse in cold and damp conditions. When she was asked to work in different parts of the company’s warehouse, she refused on the basis that she believed she would be exposed to a colder and damper working environment, which would exacerbate her disability.  Her refusal resulted in a written warning, which she argued amounted to an act of disability discrimination.

The decision

The Employment Tribunal found that there was no reason to believe that the conditions in which Ms Woods was going to be required to work would be any colder or damper then where she worked already. In fact, the conditions were pretty much the same right throughout the warehouse.  It was arguable that Ms Woods’ refusal to move about the warehouse was still related to her disability. However, in this case, the connection was not sufficiently well-established. In the Grosset case, the claimant’s error of judgment in showing the horror movie was found to be attributable to his medical condition and the stress to which he was subjected. The same could not be said in the Woods case. Ms Woods’ mistaken belief regarding working conditions elsewhere in the warehouse had nothing to do with her osteoarthritis.  As a result, the imposition of the written warning could not be said to be something arising from her disability.

Good news?

This case is helpful insofar as it confirms that there are limits on the extent to which disabled employees are protected where there is an insufficient connection between the alleged mistreatment and the employee’s disability. By the same token, we are talking about very fine distinctions which many employers and advisers will struggle to draw.  These cases are not easy and the implications for getting things wrong can be considerable.  After all, Mr Grosset eventually settled his successful claim for more than £600,000!  

If you want to discuss a problem of this nature, please get in touch.

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