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Knowledge isn’t always power

Can a discrimination claim succeed where employer unaware misconduct caused by disability?

Under section 15 of the Equality Act 2010 (EqA) subjecting an employee to unfavourable treatment because of “something” arising in consequence of his/her disability will amount to disability discrimination. In City of York v Grosset, the Court of Appeal held that an employer who dismissed an employee for misconduct caused by his disability had subjected him to unfavourable treatment, even though it was unaware that his disability had caused the misconduct.

Mr Grosset was a teacher employed in one of the Council’s schools. The Council was aware that Mr Grosset suffered from cystic fibrosis and a number of reasonable adjustments had been made at the outset of his employment. Whilst under considerable stress due to an increased workload, Mr Grosset showed a class of 15-year-olds an 18-rated horror film. The school summarily dismissed him for gross misconduct.

Mr Grosset accepted that showing the film was inappropriate but maintained that was an error of judgment arising from stress, which was contributed to by his cystic fibrosis. Medical evidence at Employment Tribunal (which had not been available to the Council) supported Mr Grosset’s contention and he succeeded with his section 15 EqA claim. In particular, the Tribunal accepted that Mr Grosset had found it difficult to absorb increased work pressures in his own time because of the time-consuming daily exercise regime his disease imposed upon him. The Tribunal found that Mr Grosset’s disability had caused or resulted in his act of misconduct and the Council had then treated him unfavourably by dismissing him because of that. The Council’s appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal was dismissed and it subsequently appealed to the Court of Appeal, arguing that, for the section 15 EqA claim to succeed, the Council had to have knowledge that Mr Grosset’s behaviour in showing the film was a consequence of his disability.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the Council’s appeal, confirming that there was no additional requirement that an employer must have knowledge that the “something” relied on for a section 15 EqA claim (in this case misconduct) arose in consequence of the employee’s disability.

The ambit of section 15 EqA was designed to be wide-reaching and this case serves as a timely reminder that employers considering disciplining a disabled employee should always consider obtaining medical advice on whether the employee’s actions could be a consequence of their disability.