Equality, diversity and inclusion

Starbucks employee wins dyslexia discrimination case

In the case of Miss Kumulchew v Starbucks Coffee Company Limited, our client, Meseret Kumulchew, won a claim for disability discrimination against her employer Starbucks after she was wrongly accused of falsifying documents. Miss Kumulchew has dyslexia and the tribunal found that Starbucks had failed to make reasonable adjustments for her needs, and appeared to have little or no knowledge or understanding of equality issues.

Jenna Ide, Senior Associate in Thomas Mansfield’s Empoyment team, represented Meseret Kumulchew in her successful case against Starbucks. The tribunal hearing lasted 8 days in September 2015. Miss Kumulchew was represented at the hearing by Rajiv Bhatt of Cloisters. The judgment was given in December 2015 and can be found here. The case was extensively reported in the national media, including the BBC.

The case is a useful reminder to employers to obtain medical advice in relation to any employees who may class as disabled to ensure that the appropriate steps can be taken and to avoid the risk of claims.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments falls squarely on the employer and is triggered in three situations, which include where a disabled employee is put at a substantial disadvantage.  For example, a requirement for a dyslexic employee to complete handwritten paperwork within a limited timescale is likely to put a dyslexic employee at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-dyslexic employees due to the difficulties faced by dyslexic individuals with writing, reading and spelling.  The employer is then required to take reasonable steps to avoid the disadvantage, for example, by providing speech-to-text software.  Whether an adjustment is reasonable or not involves an assessment of various factors, including the financial cost of making the adjustment and the size of the employer.  This duty places a positive duty on the employer to treat disabled employees more favourably.  Reasonable adjustments can be as simple as providing typed notes in large font and providing minutes of meetings “expeditiously”, both of which Starbucks failed to do in our client’s case.

An employer must also take care not only to treat the employee less favourably because of his/her disability (i.e. direct discrimination) but also not to treat the employee unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of the disability (i.e. discrimination arising from a disability).  For an example of the latter, if a dyslexic employee were to continually make errors in his/her work and was then subjected to capability procedures as a result, this treatment is likely to be unlawful unless it can be justified as being a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, which would be unlikely if adjustments had not been made or considered.

Jenna is very well placed to advise employers on reasonable adjustments for dyslexic employees or employees requiring the same. However, any dyslexic employees who are facing difficulties at work should act quickly as there are short time limits in the employment tribunals; claims must generally be brought within 3 months minus one day of the discriminatory act/failure, although there are limited circumstances in which the time limit can be extended.

If you would like to talk in confidence to one of our experienced solicitors or have any questions about discrimination then please call us on 020 7377 2829 or email us at  [email protected].