Pensions update: Was a disabled employee treated unfavourably?

In Williams v The Trustees of Swansea University Pension & Assurance Scheme and another the Court of Appeal stated that a disabled employee was not treated unfavourably (and therefore discriminated against) when his enhanced pension on ill-health retirement was based on the salary he earned when working part time due to his disability, rather than his full time salary.

Background

Mr Williams, the employee, suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. Before eventually taking ill-health retirement (at 38) he reduced his hours with his employer, Swansea University, in order to better cope with his condition and his pay was reduced accordingly.

Mr Williams was allowed, by the University, to take his accrued pension benefits immediately and without any actuarial reduction for early receipt, rather than having to wait until his normal pension date nearly twenty-nine years later. This meant he was treated as though he had accrued nearly twenty nine years further pensionable service and his benefits were advanced.

Mr Williams brought a disability discrimination claim at the Tribunal under s 15 of the Equality Act 2010. Mr Williams argued that, by using his actual part time salary rather than a full time equivalent, the calculation of the enhancement to his benefits amounted to “unfavourable” treatment and therefore unlawful discrimination.

In the initial hearing the Tribunal upheld his claim. The University then successfully appealed to the EAT. Following this Mr Williams appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the EAT because:

  • under the pension scheme rules the only employees entitled to retire early and to receive an enhanced pension were those who retired through ill-health and who were necessarily disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010;
  • Mr Williams had been treated advantageously in comparison to non-disabled colleagues and there is no authority for the proposition that a disability discrimination claim can succeed simply because an individual thinks he should have been treated better;
  • that Mr Williams was working part-time hours because of his disability could not be enough to require the employer to justify the treatment; and
  • there is no authority for the proposition that a disabled person who is treated advantageously because of their disability, but not as advantageously as a person with a different disability, has a valid claim that they have been treated “unfavourably”.

This decision confirms that, even if it could have been more advantageous, treatment that is advantageous does not amount to unfavourable treatment.

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