The Court of Appeal (“the Court”) has clarified the law for employers in relation to their obligations in terms of accommodating employees who have a disability.
Under Section 16 of the Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015, employers must take appropriate measures to enable a disabled employee to undertake the essential duties of their position unless the measures would impose a disproportionate burden on the employer.
Ms Marie Daly was a special needs assistant (“SNA”) at the Nano Nagle School (the “School”) in Killarney. She was in a road traffic accident in 2010 and suffered severe injuries resulting in her being confined to a wheelchair. She wished to return to work in 2011 as an SNA. The School obtained a report from an occupational therapist who identified sixteen duties of an SNA. It was concluded that Ms Daly could complete nine of those duties but not the remaining seven. The report was then considered by a doctor who outlined that Ms Daly was medically unfit to perform the role of an SNA. The report also suggested that Ms Daly could become a ‘floating SNA’ and this role was considered by the School, however, they could not acquire the funding for this position. The School then dismissed Ms Daly on the basis of these issues.
Court of Appeal Decision
The Court overturned the decision of the High Court. Both the Labour Court and the High Court had put emphasis on the fact that there had not been a proper consideration of the redistribution of Ms Daly’s tasks or consideration of allocating her to the role of floating SNA. The Court of Appeal disagreed with these findings. It focused on the wording of Section 16 in its decision and concluded that Ms Daly could not perform the essential tasks of an SNA, regardless of the accommodations put in place. The Court also stated that there was no requirement on the School to remove all tasks from her job role to allow her to undertake the role. As a result, the Court ruled that the School had not failed to reasonably accommodate her and vacated the €40,000 award which had originally been made.
What does this mean for employers?
From an employer’s point of view, the duty to reasonably accommodate disabled employees is less onerous than previously understood.
Employers must be in a position to objectively justify the characterisation of duties as “essential duties”, particularly if they are going to dismiss a disabled employee on the grounds that they are not fully competent and capable of undertaking those duties.
However, an employer is not required to create a new position for an employee who, even with reasonable accommodations, is not in a position to perform the essential duties of the position they have been employed to perform.
Employers still need to act prudently, and rely on expert medical advice and document their decision making processes in discharging their statutory obligations.
Author: Barry Walsh and Siobhán Lafferty