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Disability discrimination by association

In Price v Action-Tec Services Ltd t/a Associated Telecom Solutions, ET 1304312/2011, Price (P) has degenerative disc disease and is disabled. Her husband has leukemia and is also disabled. She was dismissed following absences due to back pain and when she was signed off due to high blood pressure, after she discovered her husband required chemotherapy. Her manager told her that her employment was not working out and commented: “if I had known about your husband's illness I wouldn't, no might not, have taken you on.” The ET upheld her claims of direct disability discrimination and harassment. Once the manager found out about P’s back condition and her husband’s illness, he made a stereotypical assumption that P would be an unreliable and underperforming employee because of both her and her husband’s conditions. The dismissal was therefore because of P’s disability and by association with her husband’s disability. The comment to P, although not intended to offend, nevertheless did so, and in the circumstances it was reasonable to conclude that it amounted to harassment.

Comment: This case reminds us that under the Equality Act 2010 direct discrimination is prohibited “because of” a protected characteristic and this definition is broad enough to cover cases where the less favourable treatment is because of the victim’s association with someone who has that characteristic (except where marriage or civil partnership is concerned). Here, this lead to “double trouble” for the employer as the dismissal was direct discrimination because of P’s own disability and her husband’s disability (associative discrimination).

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