Employers urged to prepare for disability discrimination claims

Employers have been urged to keep a close eye on a tribunal case being brought against Sainsbury’s for unfair dismissal, as it could set a precedent for ‘disability-related’ discrimination claims.

Louise Tarbuck, who was a principal business analyst at the supermarket’s head office, claims she was unfairly dismissed in February 2004 because of a debilitating illness. She suffers from ulcerative colitis, associated arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Tarbuck, who is claiming £1.8m in damages, made a previous claim against Sainsbury’s for disability discrimination, which was settled with a compromise agreement, under which the company was to set out how it would enable her to return to work.

But Tarbuck said Sainsbury’s breached the agreement, and claimed that when she returned to work she was required to operate as a “low profile” analyst.

In a statement filed to the tribunal, Tarbuck said that John Adshead, the then board director for HR and IT, “told me I had to resign, as ‘people like you’ [he confirmed he meant disabled people] don’t fit in with the swish new offices”. She also alleged that on her return to work her desk had been moved near to network computer equipment. Sainsbury’s denies the allegations.

The case, which continues at the central London tribunal, could broaden the definition of disability discrimination to include “disability-related” issues, according to Ranjit Dhindsa, employment lawyer at Reed Smith. The law was changed last October, but lacked comprehensive guidance or precedent, she said.

“It captures anything that happens that could be indirectly related to the illness,” she said. “In addition, this case shows that the illnesses employers might not think of as disabilities in a legal sense [are in fact disabilities]. Look how broad the definition has come to include fairly common illnesses.”

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: “Employers need to keep a close eye on legal cases following the recent changes in the law because the distinction between illness and disability, which was never easy, can require employers to do something positive, rather than simply refrain from doing something.”

For more on disability discrimination go to www.personneltoday.com/31061.article

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