EAT holds that the Employment Tribunal applied incorrect causation test in disability discrimination claim (Sheikholeslami v University of Edinburgh UKEATS/0014/17/JW)

In the case of Sheikholeslami v University of Edinburgh UKEATS/0014/17/JW the Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld a Claimant’s appeal after the Employment Tribunal erred in law by applying the wrong tests to her discrimination claims.

The facts in Sheikholeslami v University of Edinburgh

Professor Sheikholesalami (the ‘Claimant’) was a professor in chemical process engineering at the University of Edinburgh (the ‘Respondent’).  The Claimant was originally offered employment on the basis that she would be given a suitable laboratory. There were problems with the refurbishment of the laboratory, which meant that the Claimant was without a working laboratory for nearly two and a half years. She raised grievances about her treatment, alleging sex discrimination. This culminated in her being signed off sick with work related stress. As a result of her complaints a diversity review was undertaken which highlighted cultural problems within the workplace.

Following the review, relationships broke down between the Claimant and other staff members in the school. She wrote a letter stating that she wished to return to work via gradual reintegration through another school but the department suggested instead that she return to work at her existing refurbished laboratory. Eventually, the Claimant was dismissed.  The Respondent argued that this was because her work visa was due to expire. The Claimant complained that the real reason for her dismissal was to avoid the problem of her continued and sustained complaints of gender and disability discrimination.

The decision of the Employment Tribunal

The Tribunal found that the Claimant was dismissed because she was not prepared to return to work at the Engineering School and that this triggered the problems with her visa. The reason for her unwillingness to return to work appeared to be her perception that she would be treated badly by her colleagues (which triggered her disability in the first place). The Tribunal dismissed her disability discrimination claim because, it held, it did not have the evidence to say that her dismissal was because of her disability.

With regards to the Claimant’s reasonable adjustments claim, the Tribunal agreed that the Respondent did apply a PCP to the Claimant requiring her to attend work at the School of Engineering. However, it then went on to consider whether the PCP placed the Claimant at a substantial disadvantage because of her disability. In answering this question, its position was that the Claimant had to prove the PCP placed her at a substantial disadvantage and show that this was because of her disability.  They went on to find that the PCP did not place the Claimant at a substantial disadvantage because of her PCP and accordingly dismissed her claim.

The Claimant appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal

The decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal

The EAT held that the Tribunal was wrong in its approach to causation. The correct test required the Tribunal to consider whether the unfavourable treatment was because of something arising in consequence of the disability, not because of it.

The correct causation test could encompass several links in a chain of facts and more than one consequence of the disability could be taken into account. The Employment Tribunal had erred in adopting too narrow a test for causation and failing to consider other relevant consequences of the disability.  On the facts of the case, it was clear to the EAT that the disability, the perceived discriminatory treatment that gave rise to it and the Claimant’s reluctance to return to work were interlinked in such a way that could satisfy the broad test for a claim of discrimination arising from a disability.

The EAT also held that the Tribunal erred in its approach to the Claimant’s reasonable adjustments claim because the reasonable adjustments test was not a causation question. It required a comparison exercise with people who are not disabled, and so the Employment Tribunal had been wrong to require causation relating to the substantial disadvantage and medical evidence to prove it.

Our solicitors’ views on the case of Sheikholeslami v University of Edinburgh

Sacha Barrett, a Senior Associate in the employment department at Redmans, made the following comment on the case: “When preparing any disability discrimination case, it is important to think carefully about what the Claimant is and isn’t required to show in terms of causation.  This case clarifies that a looser connection involving more than one link in a chain of causation may be permitted for discrimination arising from a disability claims.’

The decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Sheikholeslami v University of Edinburgh UKEATS/0014/17/JW can be found here.