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Abercrombie failed to make reasonable adjustments for disabled law student

21 August 2009

American fashion chain Abercrombie & Fitch failed to make reasonable adjustments to enable a law student with a false arm to work at its flagship store in London, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Giving judgment in Dean v Abercrombie & Fitch (2203221/2008), Employment Judge Clark said that Riam Dean, now aged 22, was born without a left forearm and had a prosthetic limb from the elbow down.

Judge Clark said the disability “would not have been obvious” to the company at the interview, nor did Abercrombie ask applicants to declare any disabilities.

She said that Dean’s position at the store was her first job, and involved both working on the shop floor and in the stock room.

The court heard that on paper diversity was integral to Abercrombie’s “look policy”, which relied on staff to “exude the Abercrombie brand and lifestyle” rather than rely on external marketing.

Judge Clark said that Dean bought a white cardigan to wear over her “look” polo shirt and explained that managers had allowed her to wear it.

However, her own manager, who had recently returned from holiday and missed the discussions, told her to work in the stock room because she was breaking the “look” policy. Later she said Dean could return to the shop floor if she removed the cardigan.

Dean resigned after working at the store for a little over a month and completing only a handful of shifts.

Judge Clark said that both Dean’s manager, and her manager’s manager, “conspicuously failed to acknowledge that the claimant might have been justifiably upset at the peremptory way she was told to leave the shop floor, that this could have offended any sensitivity she might have felt about her disability or that any apology might have been appropriate”.

Judge Clark criticised Dean’s mother for claiming that her daughter’s confidence was “shattered” and that she refused to leave home “for weeks” following the incident.

She said Mrs Dean and another witness were aware that, on the day after she resigned, Dean travelled to Newcastle with friends for a 21st birthday party.

“The fact that the claimant and her witnesses exaggerated the effect of the respondent’s treatment on her to the tribunal does not mean she was not upset by it or did not suffer injury to her feelings, however.

“Whilst the claimant did not seek medical treatment for any feelings of anxiety, the tribunal accepted her evidence that she felt humiliated and experienced a loss of confidence, in particular concerning her arm following her treatment by the respondent.”

Judge Clark held that Dean had been unlawfully harassed for a reason relating to her disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and had been wrongfully dismissed. The company also failed to comply with its duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Act.

She awarded Dean £7,800 for injury to her feelings and just over £1,000 for loss of earnings. Dean’s claim of direct discrimination was rejected.

Stephen Beverley, consultant at Cliftons solicitors in London, acted for Dean. He said Dean had worked for him as a summer student during her law degree.

“She mentors a lot of young, disabled kids and feels that she would not be able to look them in the face if she walked away from this,” he said. “She will be an asset to the profession.”

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Discrimination Vulnerable Clients