A landmark decision in the high-profile Sharon Coleman case has paved the way for thousands of ‘discrimination by association’ claims by able-bodied people under the Disability Discrimination Act.
The European Court of Justice this morning ruled in favour of Coleman by finding that able-bodied people can be unlawfully subjected to disability discrimination.
Coleman is suing her employer, Attridge Law, claiming she was forced to quit her job after she requested time off to look after her four-year-old disabled son.
A UK employment tribunal referred the case to Europe to clarify the meaning of the directive. Earlier this year, an advocate-general of the European court suggested the verdict would go in Coleman’s favour.
Legal experts have warned that today’s decision could lead to a rush of discrimination by association claims – as well as fresh appeals for flexible working by those who could be affected.
Fraser Younson, employment practice partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner, said: “The ECJ’s decision on Coleman is the latest in a line of recent European Court judgments broadening the scope of discrimination law.
“The underlying theme is that any mistreatment on discriminatory grounds should be prohibited. So the employee in question need not actually be disabled or of a given race/age/sexual orientation. This could open the floodgates to claims which employers can ill afford during the current period of economic uncertainty.”
Coleman joined Attridge Law as a legal secretary in 2001. A year later, she gave birth to a son with serious respiratory problems.
She claims managers called her ‘lazy’ when she requested time off to care for him. She accepted voluntary redundancy, but later brought a claim for constructive dismissal and disability discrimination.