Coventry Higher Education Case Highlights Challenges in Proving Disability Discrimination and Reasonable Adjustments

Citation: [2024] EWCA Civ 191
Judgment on

Introduction

The Court of Appeal Civil Division case of Simon Pipe v Coventry Higher Education examines critical areas of discrimination law, particularly indirect disability discrimination, discrimination arising from disability, and the duty to make reasonable adjustments as laid out in the Equality Act 2010. The appeal’s focal point revolves around the Employment Tribunal (ET) and Employment Appeal Tribunal’s (EAT) interpretation and application of these legal frameworks in a scenario involving an employee with a disability who sought promotion and claimed that his employer’s procedures and decisions were discriminatory. This article delineates the intricacies of the applied legal principles and explicates the appellate court’s rationale behind its judgment.

Key Facts

Mr. Simon Pipe, a former BBC journalist and a lecturer diagnosed with ADHD and a sleep disorder, sought promotion through Coventry Higher Educational’s Framework but was unsuccessful on multiple occasions. His case revolved around the claims that his promotion rejections were informed by disability discrimination through direct treatment associated with his disability and through indirect discrimination, as well as a failure by the University to make reasonable adjustments per the Equality Act 2010.

The University’s Framework essentially required applicants for promotion to show proof of peer-reviewed research or a Ph.D. or equivalent, among other criteria. Pipe alleged that his disability was an influential factor in his failure to meet these criteria, hence the ET was engaged to determine if his applications were denied as a direct consequence of something arising from his disability and if he was subjected to indirect discrimination. In addition to these allegations, Pipe petitioned for reasonable adjustments tailored to his disability, which he claimed were not duly provided.

In this case, several key legal principles were scrutinized:

Discrimination Arising from Disability (Section 15, Equality Act 2010)

This principle considers whether an employer discriminates against an employee by treating them unfavorably because of something arising in consequence of the employee’s disability. The legal test here considers if the ‘something’ has at least a significant influence on the treatment, even if not the sole cause.

Indirect Discrimination (Section 19, Equality Act 2010)

Section 19 touches on policies or practices that are non-discriminatory on their face but, in essence, put a person with a disability at a particular disadvantage. The focus here is not on intent but on impact, assessing whether the policy bites harder on a disabled person compared to those who are not disabled.

Reasonable Adjustments (Section 20, Equality Act 2010)

The duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled persons, stipulated in Section 20, addresses the need to avoid substantial disadvantages to disabled individuals by accommodating their needs through adjustments.

The Tribunal also acknowledged the principle in Buchanan v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis that, in certain cases, if a general policy or procedure is justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, the application of that policy to an individual will generally be justified as well.

Outcomes

The ET initially dismissed Mr. Pipe’s claims, leading Pipe to appeal to the EAT, which partially allowed the appeal and remitted the claims related to indirect disability and age discrimination to the ET, while dismissing the rest of Pipe’s appeal. Ultimately, the Court of Appeal upheld the ET’s and EAT’s decisions and dismissed the appeal on all four grounds.

The key outcomes from the Court of Appeal’s judgment focused on the following:

  • Causation in Section 15 Claims: The Court found that the ET had correctly determined causation under the Equality Act 2010 Section 15. The ET had rightly concluded that the lack of a business case was the primary reason for the denial of promotion, rather than anything arising from Mr. Pipe’s disability.

  • Assessment of Disadvantage under Section 19: The Court agreed with the ET’s determination that the lack of a business case meant there was no disadvantage arising from the discrimination claim, and thus the comparison to non-disabled individuals was immaterial.

  • Reasonableness of Adjustments: The Court supported the ET’s conclusion that creating a role for Mr. Pipe exclusively or promoting him outside the usual procedures did not constitute reasonable adjustments the university was obliged to make.

  • Justification of the Framework: The Court sustained the ET’s justification of the Framework as being a proportionate means to achieve legitimate aims in terms of setting a high academic standard.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Simon Pipe v Coventry Higher Education reinforces the stringent standards required to demonstrate both discrimination arising from disability and indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. It elucidates that, where a rejection is predominantly based on the absence of a business need or a similar non-discriminatory factor, it can nullify the significance of any potential connection to the complainant’s disability. This case exemplifies the importance for claimants to substantiate the causal links between their disability and alleged discriminatory treatment while simultaneously affirming the necessity for employers to

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