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The Employment Tribunal (ET) has found that Starbucks discriminated against an employee after she made frequent mistakes due to her inability to read, write or tell the time. The employee suffered from dyslexia, which she alleged Starbucks was aware of.

Kumulchew v Starbucks Coffee Company UK Limited

Ms Kumulchew commenced employment with Starbucks in 2003 and within 6 months was promoted to Qualified Shift Supervisor. She suffers from dyslexia, which caused problems with reading and writing including fluency, accuracy and understanding. By her own admission, when people explain things to her she has to ask the person to explain it to her “like I am a child”.

On 26 July 2012 Ms Kumulchew was moved to the Clapham branch of Starbucks. The District Manager responsible for the branch was aware of Ms Kumulchew’s dyslexia and how it affected her. One of Ms Kumulchew’s responsibilities was to fill in the duty roster which included writing down both fridge and water temperatures as well as the time at which they had been checked. Ms Kumulchew alleged that she had noticed her manager checking what she had written on the duty roster book. Occasionally, her manager made comments on it if there were any mistakes but she had never received feedback on an individual basis, despite asking for more time to allow her to understand tasks and for someone to check her work for mistakes.

Starbucks’ policy on reasonable adjustments sets out that “if due to a disability, a partner requires an adjustment to their working conditions they should speak to their line manager. The manager will meet with the partner to gain a greater understanding of these issues….”  The District Manager did not sit down with Ms Kumulchew to discuss any problems she may have.

On 28 March 2014 there was a Detailed Store Visit (DSV) of the Clapham branch. Ms Kumulchew was on duty that day. Following her shift, Ms Kumulchew was called to a feedback session with managers and was accused of falsifying documents. She was asked about the fridge temperatures and other data she was responsible for. During the session, Ms Kumulchew was asked why she had put a zero in front of the numbers. Ms Kumulchew explained that it was due to her dyslexia and that she did not understand decimals or how they worked. Each time Ms Kumulchew was asked about an error and how it had happened, she replied that it was due to her dyslexia.

The managers were not willing to accept Ms Kumulchew’s dyslexia as the reason for her mistakes. They instead accused her of falsifying documents and alleged in regard to her dyslexia that she had “made it up” and that they did not need to make any allowances for her as “there had been a clear breach of procedures” in her falsifying documents. Ms Kumulchew was then given lesser duties and told to retrain by the employer, as well has being issued with a final written warning which she said left her “feeling suicidal”. Ms Kumulchew brought a claim for disability discrimination.

The Employment Tribunal (ET)

The ET found that Ms Kumulchew had been treated unfavourably because of something arising out of a disability. The ET accepted that the effect of Ms Kumulchew’s dyslexia meant that she was unable to complete the duty roster accurately. Ms Kumulchew had been invited to a disciplinary meeting and given a final written warning as a result of her mistakes which had arisen from her disability. The ET identified that the unfavourable treatment was the managers relying on her mistakes on the duty roster to justify a disciplinary warning.

Ms Kumulchew was also successful with claims for sex discrimination, victimisation and detriment on the grounds of making a protected disclosure.

Comment

This case highlights that those who suffer from dyslexia can be covered by the Equality Act 2010 if it has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.  Employers should err on the side of caution in situations where performance issues may be the result of a disability. The British Dyslexia Association estimates that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, even if they have not been formally diagnosed.

There is no cap on compensation for discrimination, meaning that the most extreme cases can become very expensive, with awards having been made running to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

If you have any queries relating to discrimination in the workplace or if you have any other employment related queries please do not hesitate to contact Joanne Holborn, Tom Scaife or Caroline Rayner on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.

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