UK EAT overturns decision on disability discrimination due to causation test being applied too strictly

The UK Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has overturned a decision on disability discrimination due to the causation test being applied too strictly.

The claimant was a Professor employed by the University of Edinburgh. Four years into her role in the University the claimant was diagnosed with work related stress and depression and was absent from work until her employment was terminated.

At the time of her absence she raised a complaint of sex discrimination in the workplace. The University conducted a diversity review and found issues to do with the culture in the school of engineering but this did not imply a “gender bias as such”.

The claimant wanted to return to work but wished to do so through another school in the University. This was not possible and the University dismissed her stating that the reason was the expiry of her work permit.

The claimant brought various claims against the University, including failure to make reasonable adjustments and a claim of discrimination arising from disability under Section 15 of the Equality Act 2010.

The Employment Tribunal rejected both claims due to insufficient evidence establishing a link between her disability and the dismissal. The Tribunal found that she was not dismissed due to her absence, but as she was not willing or able to resume her previous position. The Tribunal found no causal link between this decision and her disability. On the same grounds, the Tribunal believed her difficulty working within the engineering faculty was not relevant for the purposes of reasonable adjustments.

On appeal, the EAT was of the view that the causation test applied was too strictly. The Tribunal had asked itself whether the refusal to return to her position was “because of her disability or because of some other reason, such as she considered she had been badly treated in that department”. The EAT was of the view, however, that it should have asked whether it was a “consequence of her disability”. The EAT saw this as a looser connection, that allows for more than one causal link – such as the perceived mistreatment causing enhanced anxiety and stress in the workplace.

In relation to reasonable adjustments, the EAT stated that it was well established that the duty to make reasonable adjustments arises where the disabled person is put at a substantial disadvantage compared with people who are not disabled. The purpose of the comparison exercise with people who are not disabled is to test whether the situation has had the effect of producing the relevant disadvantage.  The EAT confirmed that this was not a question of causation.

Click here for the case in Sheikholeslami v University of Edinburgh.



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