A disabled bank worker who was subjected to six years of torment at several NatWest branches has received a record-breaking £4.7 million in damages.
The Tribunal heard how the employee, who sustained permanent nerve damage after being hit by a car on the way to her first day of work, was made to feel “worthless” by co-workers in a series of 60 separate offences.
The claimant, identified only as AB in court documents, returned to her role as a customer services officer two months after the accident but suffered with ongoing pain and needed to wear a foot splint due to her injuries. From 2008 to 2014, the claimant was “humiliated” and shouted at by colleagues at the bank, who called her “stupid” and suggested that her physical disability meant she was “no help” to customers.
It emerged that NatWest, which is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), failed to make reasonable adjustments to the claimant’s role or workstation and forced her to work on the till despite her disability. The company also neglected to arrange any occupational health support to enable the claimant to work more comfortably and improve her capacity to carry out tasks.
To add insult to injury, the Tribunal found that in 2013, the claimant was coerced into agreeing to a demotion from customer adviser to customer services officer.
During discussions at the time, a deputy manager had made reference to the claimant “limping around the branch”, which suggested to the claimant that her physical disability had been a contributing factor in this decision.
When the claimant asked to be transferred to another branch some months later, her request was denied as staff at the new branch felt that her disability would limit her ability to perform the job. She eventually resigned in May 2014.
The East London Employment Tribunal concluded that the employer’s actions amounted to discrimination and that the claimant had been constructively dismissed. It ordered RBS to pay £4,670,535 – thought to be the highest amount ever awarded for a disability discrimination claim. The gargantuan sum reflects the Tribunal’s determination that the discrimination contributed to the claimant’s severe and multiple mental health problems, as well as psychiatric opinion that the claimant is unlikely to ever work again.
RBS contested the decision, claiming that the claimant’s psychiatric condition was “inevitable” and attributable to other factors. However, the Judge dismissed the appeal, maintaining that the original Tribunal’s reasoning was “coherent and clear”.
Director of Legal Services
The size of the award here will no doubt generate a number of headlines and grab people’s attention. Awards of this size are very rare (in 2019, the highest amount awarded for disability discrimination was £416,015, with an average payout of £28,371); however, this case does demonstrate that where campaigns of discrimination are ongoing over several years, and have really severe consequences, Tribunals will not be afraid to award significant payouts.
It is clear from the facts of the case that the employer failed to deal with the claimant’s medical condition in any meaningful way. It may be that they didn’t think it was particularly serious or warranted any special attention. That was an expensive mistake. It is crucial that employers face up to their responsibilities when dealing with disabled employees to ensure they are treated with respect and that all reasonable adjustments are made.
What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances, but examples may include changing the employee’s hours of work, allowing them to work from home or perhaps take extra breaks, or providing different or additional equipment to allow them to work more comfortably and effectively. Exploring these adjustments is a legal requirement and may incur some cost but will be considerably cheaper than an Employment Tribunal claim.
Employers should also consider providing training in disability awareness and applying your policies. This will improve the skills and confidence of senior staff so that they are in a better position to support employees and take action against bullying or discriminatory behaviour.
These measures, coupled with taking advice from an Employment Law specialist where necessary, will help you to avoid a similar fate.