Dismissed for anger at disability disadvantage: discrimination?

Mr Risby, a paraplegic wheelchair user who was dismissed after losing his temper because he could not access a training venue, has won a claim for disability discrimination. We report on an important extension of disability discrimination rights.

Background

The Claimant in this case, Mr Risby, is a paraplegic wheelchair user. He was employed by the London Borough of Waltham Forest for 23 years before being dismissed for gross misconduct.

The events leading to his dismissal involved a change in a training venue that meant Mr Risby could no longer access it because of his wheelchair use. He reacted extremely angrily to this, exclaiming that he would not have been treated this way had he been black and using extremely expletive language in this regard. The Borough found it relevant that a person of mixed race had heard the outburst. Mr Risby was suspended, escorted from the office, and subsequently summarily dismissed for gross misconduct.

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination “arising from” or in consequence of an employee’s disability, where the treatment is not a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Previous case law has suggested that for the “arising from” test to be passed there needs to be a connection, albeit a loose one, between the thing arising in consequence of the disability (in this case the angry reaction) and the disability itself. For instance, in the Statutory Code of Practice, a person exhibiting angry characteristics because of severe pain caused by cancer (a disability) may be discriminated against because of treatment relating to the anger rather than the disability itself.

This case is different, however, because the Tribunal expressly made a finding that Mr Risby’s short temper was not connected to his disability.

Notwithstanding this, the EAT concluded that Mr Risby’s disability “was an effective cause of [his] indignation and so of his conduct”. This was sufficient to establish a case for discrimination which the London Borough would have to justify as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Implications

Because Mr Risby’s temper was found to be unconnected with his disability, this case further loosens the link that is needed between the individual’s disability and the thing he or she is discriminated because of.

In this particular case, the Borough may still be able to argue that their treatment of Mr Risby was justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, because his particular language in this case offended against its equal opportunities policy. Other future respondents may not be able to rely on such evidence to support their cases.

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Updates: For employers: Disciplinary problems | Discrimination | Dismissing staff | For employees: Discrimination |

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