Pump Court Chambers

Starbucks takes a roasting: Employee with dyslexia succeeds in her Equality Act claims

Blog 22nd March 2016

Meseret Kumulchew v Starbucks Coffee Company UK Limited 2301217/2014 G

The coffee giant found itself in hot water as the Employment Tribunal upheld complaints of discrimination on the basis of reasons arising from disability and failure to make reasonable adjustments, as well as sex discrimination, victimisation, and detriment for whistleblowing.

Ms Kumulchew, the Claimant, was a Qualified Shift Supervisor for Starbucks, and had made her dyslexia known to her managers (the Second and Third Respondents). It was noted by the Claimant’s managers that her recording of fridge temperatures and other data in a duty roster book contained errors, leading them to consider that she had falsified company records.

The Claimant’s consistent response to the mistakes, which included adding zeros in front of numbers, had been to explain that due to her dyslexia she did not understand decimal points. She also made it clear that the condition also impacted her reading and spelling, and that extra time and support would be required to assist her in working with written material.

Ms Kumulchew was invited in the course of disciplinary proceedings to provide “registered Dyslexia documentation” or a certificate confirming her dyslexia. She had relayed her own GP’s advice, that the company’s doctor could assess her if there was doubt about her condition.

Roundly criticising the managers, the Tribunal stated that the Second Respondent “appeared to have no understanding about the Claimant’s dyslexia” and described the Third Respondent’s evidence as both “unconvincing and inconsistent” and “wholly unreliable”. Neither manager appeared to have read, understood or followed their own policy on disability awareness. The managers had failed to take into consideration the company’s policy on reasonable adjustments in their dealings with the Claimant.

The Claimant was ultimately given a disciplinary warning for the incorrect completion of the duty roster book. Within the disciplinary procedure, she was expected to sign and agree handwritten notes at the end of meetings – something which was very difficult for her on account of her dyslexia. Furthermore, when typed notes were provided before an appeal, they were given in very small typeface, and provided just two days before the hearing of the appeal. The Tribunal found that the Respondent had failed in its duty to make reasonable adjustments to enable the Claimant to overcome the substantial disadvantage she had faced. The minutes should have been provided in a readable form, and with sufficient time for her to consider them.

By giving the Claimant a disciplinary warning, relying on her mistakes to justify the sanction, the Respondent had treated the Claimant unfavourably because of something arising out of her disability.

The judgment highlights the fact that employers must be alive to the issues that arise with dyslexia, and will need to make appropriate adjustments to avoid falling foul of the equality legislation.

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