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Office manager wins unfair dismissal and disability discrimination claim after being refused new chair

Makbool Javaid, Partner - Simons Muirhead & Burton

In the case of Mrs Lynda Walker v Modular Office & Storage Systems Limited Mrs Walker’s employment began in January 2001. She was originally employed to undertake general administrative work and tele-sales, but her role gradually encompassed that of the office manager. She was one of 6 full-time employees, which included the two directors.

The tribunal heard she went off sick for a week in May 2018 due to hip bursitis and then she went off for a fortnight due to hip and back pain in October, followed by a certified five months off, with the final certificate due to expire in March 2019. Her employer had never had a member of staff absent for such a significant period of time and there were no dedicated HR staff.

An occupational health report was carried in December 2018 which found she had endured pain in her left hip for up to three years and was on medication. She had asked for a new chair as the one she had been using was not suitable because it “exacerbated her pain and discomfort”, the hearing was told.

In order to help alleviate some of her pain, Mrs Walker had asked for the arms of her chair to be removed but engineer, Christopher Hoey, was “reluctant” to do this as they were screwed on and he thought it would make the chair faulty , the panel heard.

The company, Modular Office & Storage Systems Limited based in Tyne and Wear, failed to carry out a workplace assessment to establish whether a different chair or desk would have helped Mrs Walker return to work. She was sacked for long term ill health in February 2019 with the company claiming that “even with modification”, they could not foresee a return-to-work date.

Employment Judge Gerald Johnson concluded: “[Mrs Walker] maintained (as did the occupational health physician) that a more suitable chair and desk would probably mean that [she] would be able to return to work sooner to undertake her duties.

“[The company] failed to address its mind to the possibility of making that adjustment.”

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