Refusal to adjust pregnancy risk assessment constituted discrimination (Sommerford v United Hygiene Services Limited – ET/2300023/2017)

In Sommerford v United Hygiene Services Limited – ET/2300023/2017 the Employment Tribunal, whilst rejecting the majority of the Claimant’s claims, upheld a claim that she had been subjected to pregnancy discrimination when her employer failed to make reasonable adjustments to her pregnancy risk assessment.

The facts in Sommerford v United Hygiene Services Limited

Ms Kirsty Sommerford, (the ‘Claimant’) commenced employment with United Hygiene Services Limited (the ‘Respondent’) in 2010.  On 4 April 2016 the Claimant informed her line manger that she was pregnant.  Her line manager instructed her not to tell any work colleagues until she had had the opportunity to tell the Respondent’s Managing Director. It took her over one month to do this.  When he finally was informed the Claimant was relieved as she had been worried about his reaction and found it stressful not being able to tell her work colleagues.

In June 2016 the Claimant and some other employees were relocated to another office.  At the new office the Claimant had sit on a bench with a non-adjustable chair.  The Claimant complained to her line manager about this verbally and in a grievance she raised on 3 August 2016.  She alleged that informing her line manager that the seating was unsuitable amounted to a protected disclosure.

On 23 June the Claimant received a letter about her failure to hit her performance target for the month.  The letter was also sent to a male colleague who had failed to hit his target, but the Claimant alleged that the letter amounted to pregnancy and maternity discrimination, direct sex discrimination and a detriment under s47B of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

On 29 June 2026 the Respondents undertook a 25-week risk assessment of the Claimant.  The assessment was carried out in the Respondent’s boardroom in front of 4 male colleagues.  The Claimant requested that it be carried out elsewhere, but was informed that there was nowhere else to do it.

On 4 July 2016 the Claimant along with all the Respondent’s staff attended a meeting at which employees were advised that targets were being increased as well as sales areas.  The Claimant argued that the increased target and area amount to a provision, criterion or practice which put her at a particular disadvantage as it would have involved significant periods of driving in the course of her employment.

On the 18 July 2016 the Claimant’s line manger wrote to her advising her that she needed to attend a disciplinary in respect of various issues.  In fact, the letter was supposed to be an invitation to an investigation meeting and the issues referred to in the letter were never followed up.

The Claimant also complained about the content and tone of a number of emails from the Respondent’s Group Manager in a grievance letter on 26 July 2016.  That grievance was dealt with by the Claimant’s line manager.  The Claimant went on to allege that her involvement amounted to pregnancy and maternity discrimination and direct sex discrimination, despite agreeing to her involvement at the time.  She also alleged that her grievance amounted to a protected act for the purposes of s27 of the Equality Act 2010, namely that the Respondent had failed to comply with its obligations by subjecting her to discrimination.

The Claimant’s grievance was largely upheld, but she still went on to appeal the decision on 17 August 2016. Unhappy with the outcome of the grievance appeal meeting she wrote to the Respondent advising them that she had no option, but to brings claims in the Employment Tribunal (‘ET’)

Following a period of sickness absence, the Respondent failed to conduct a return to work meeting.  The Claimant alleged this failure amounted to pregnancy and maternity discrimination and direct discrimination.  The Claimant’s last day at the Respondent’s was 19 September 2016.  After that she received some e-mail relating to the handover of her work and her company car.  She alleged that those e-mails amounted to harassment related to sex.

The Claimant brought claims in the Employment Tribunal for direct discrimination on the grounds of sex or maternity, indirect discrimination on grounds of sex, harassment on grounds of sex and victimisation and detriments on the grounds of making protected disclosures against the Respondent.

The decision of the Employment Tribunal

The ET found that the Claimant’s complaints of pregnancy and maternity discrimination were well founded.  The ET held that the failure to tell the Respondent’s Managing Director straight away implied that the news would be unwelcome to him.  The initial instruction to the Claimant to delay informing people about her pregnancy clearly involved less favourable treatment of the Claimant because of her pregnancy.

In relation to the risk assessment, the ET considered that this also involved unfavourable treatment of the Claimant who was pregnant and consequently the complaint of pregnancy and maternity discrimination was well founded.

In respect of the other complaints, the ET found that there was no causal link between the matters complained of by the Claimant either with her sex or with the fact that she was pregnant.  As a result, they concluded that the Claimant’s complaints of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy, indirect discrimination, her complaints of harassment, victimisation and suffering a detriment were not well founded and accordingly dismissed.

Our solicitors’ views on the case of Miss Sommerford v United Hygiene Services Limited

Sacha Barrett, a Senior Associate in the employment department at Redmans, made the following comment on the case ‘The Claimant’s credibility was impacted in the eyes of the Employment Tribunal by the number of claims she made without merit.  In this case the Claimant would have been better served focusing on those aspects of the Respondent’s treatment of her that was clearly related to her pregnancy.’

The decision of the Employment Tribunal in Miss Sommerford v United Hygiene Services Limited (ET/2300023/2017) can be found here.