Flight attendant was discriminated against following brain tumour, tribunal rules

Ryanair ignored requests for reasonable adjustments or reassignment to ground-based roles

A flight attendant was discriminated against after her employer failed to reassign her to a ground-based role that would have accommodated her disability following a brain tumour, a tribunal has found. 

A London employment tribunal (ET) unanimously ruled that Ryanair discriminated against and constructively dismissed Margita Dworak as a consequence of its “ongoing discriminatory treatment” in relation to her disability.

The tribunal found Ryanair repeatedly ignored requests by Dworak for reasonable adjustments and reassignment to ground-based roles, and said that asking her to apply for suitable roles through an open, standard recruitment process amounted to “not making any adjustments whatsoever”.

Judge G Tobin said the failure to provide Dworak with alternative work or adjust a role to accomodate her disability amounted to disability discrimination, and that Dworak’s resignation was not “because of her illness, nor did she resign for any other reason than [Ryanair’s] intentional and continuous failure to provide her with work”. 

Dworak worked for Ryanair from 2004 as a customer services supervisor – a role the tribunal described as a senior flight attendant – until her resignation in August 2018. She was primarily based at Stansted Airport.

The tribunal heard that, in 2015, Dworak began to experience severe headaches. By the summer of 2017, she had become worried enough that she returned to her family home in Poland to visit a specialist. She subsequently experienced a seizure and was admitted to hospital.

Sign up to the PM Daily email newsletter for all the latest HR and employment law news

She informed Ryanair on 10 July that she would be absent for the following week, and on 13 July was diagnosed with a benign neoplasm – a non-cancerous brain tumour.

Dworak submitted a number of sick notes throughout July and August. On 28 September, she received a welfare call from an HR officer, Ms Joyce, in which she disclosed her diagnosis to her employer for the first time.

Following this, on 2 October, Dworak’s brother emailed Joyce to advise her Dworak had been taken into hospital again and provided her with the original hospital discharge summary and a consultation note from a neurologist. The tribunal found it was at this point that Ryanair had factual knowledge of Dworak’s disability caused by her brain tumour. 

A further telephone conversation took place between Joyce and Dworak on 25 October. Dworak asked Joyce if she could have a phased return to work and undertake ground duties while she waited for surgery. However, Joyce said that as Dworak was not medically certified as fit for flight attendant work, Ryanair would not bring her back to work. 

Dworak attended an in-person meeting with Sharon McAleer, another HR officer, on 1 November and asked if she could return to work on ground duties only. She brought a statement of fitness to work from her British GP, which recommended a phased return to work, altered hours and amended duties. 

Dworak was advised at this meeting to focus on her health and recovery, and was told McAleer “would look into her request once her doctor advised she was fit to return to work”. 

On 14 November, Dworak wrote to Joyce reiterating her wish to return to work, and Joyce replied the next day advising that a role of base supervisor at Stansted was available but would require her to fly as well as undertake ground duties. 

Dworak wrote to Joyce on 11 December advising she was diagnosed as fit for work only for ground duties, but the tribunal heard there was no response to this letter. 

Dworak wrote again to Joyce on 29 December explaining she was fit for work and would present herself on 3 January 2018. The day she was due to return, McAleer called Dworak to say there were no ground duties available at Stansted. 

At this time, Dworak was told she was “free to check” the careers section on the Ryanair website. McAleer also said Dworak’s occupational sickness benefit and statutory sick pay would be ending soon. 

Dworak wrote to McAleer on 5 January saying she had seen a position of cash office support operative, which she highlighted could amount to suitable alternative employment. Dworak reported for work on 6 and 8 January to undertake administrative tasks, but was told on both days to return home as there was “no work available” for her.

McAleer wrote to Dworak on 11 January saying it was “unreasonable” for her to expect Ryanair “could create a ground-based job for you where one simply does not exist” and that she would have to apply for the cash office support role through the application form as Ryanair “cannot ‘allocate’ this position”. 

As a result, Dworak lodged a grievance the following day, which was not acknowledged. She resubmitted her grievance on 10 February stating Ryanair had breached the Equality Act by failing to carry out a risk assessment, make reasonable adjustments or consider other roles for her within the business. 

The tribunal found the grievance outcome, which was sent to Dworak on 11 April, ignored the complaints that Ryanair had failed to recognise she had a disability and was thereby protected by equality legislation. 

During the grievance process, Ryanair highlighted a number of roles Dworak might apply for, but she could not fulfil any of them because of either the location or her disability.  

The tribunal heard Dworak eventually found a role in a different business and resigned from Ryanair. 

The ET unanimously ruled in favour of Dworak, finding that she was discriminated against and constructively dismissed.

Judge Tobin said: “To recruit an existing employee through an open, standard recruitment process was not making any adjustments whatsoever because this puts an individual with a disability in the same position as an external, non-disabled candidate. It does not even afford a long-standing employee with 13-year experience and an exemplary record… any priority whatsoever.”

A remedy hearing has been listed for the future. 

Andrew Willis, head of legal at HR-inform, said the case should act as a reminder to employers of their duty to make reasonable adjustments to assist disabled employees and the dangers associated with attempting to avoid this. He said role reassignment could be an efficient method of helping a disabled employee maintain their employment.

“When faced with such a situation, if they think such a request is unreasonable, employers will need to demonstrate why this is to avoid breaching the legal duty,” Wilis said. “If role reassignment is possible, at no point should the employee be made to apply for the alternative role – this should be provided as a reasonable adjustment.” 

Dworak could not be reached for comment. A Ryanair spokesperson said: “We have instructed our lawyers to appeal this decision.”