The Supreme Court recently delivered its judgment in the long-running case of Marie Daly v Nano Nagle School.
In reversing the decision of the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court held that the duty to provide reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee will not be satisfied by an employer that separates tasks from essential duties in its assessment of the employee’s capability.
The Supreme Court returned the case to be reheard by the Labour Court in line with its interpretation of section 16 of the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 (the Acts).
Marie Daly was working as a Special Needs Assistant in the Nano Nagle School in Listowel, Co Kerry when she suffered severe injuries in a road traffic accident. Ms Daly received a diagnosis of permanent paralysis from the waist down. After completing a course of rehabilitation, she reapplied to the school to take up her old position.
The school arranged for an occupational therapy assessment which reported that Ms Daly would not be capable of performing 7 out of 16 tasks that are necessary to carry out the role. The occupational therapy expert recommended that Ms Daly be considered for the role of ‘floating’ special needs assistant.
The school stated that as no such role existed within the school, it was necessary to terminate her employment on the basis that she would not be capable of carrying out the role.
The Supreme Court noted the “divergence of approach and outcome” applied at each stage of the legal proceedings.
The case began in the Equality Tribunal (as it was then) in 2011 which found in favour of the school. Ms Daly appealed to the Labour Court, which found in her favour. The school was unsuccessful in an appeal to the High Court before receiving a favourable decision in the Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court has now overturned the Court of Appeal ruling.
Capability and reasonable accommodation
The Supreme Court ruling provides useful guidance on the interpretation of section 16 of the Acts.
Section 16 provides that nothing in the Acts shall require an employer to recruit, promote or retain an individual in a position if the individual is not (or, as the case may be, is no longer) fully competent and available to carry out the duties attached to the position.
This position is qualified in section 16(3)(b) which imposes a duty on employers to do all that is reasonable to accommodate the needs of a disabled candidate provided that any such reasonable measures do not place a disproportionate burden on the employer.
Supreme Court reverses Court of Appeal finding
The Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeal interpretation of section 16 of the Acts which distinguished between tasks and essential duties required by the position.
The Supreme Court ruled that reasonable accommodation can involve a redistribution of any task or duty in a job, so long as it is not disproportionate in the context of the employment in question.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Appeal erred in drawing a distinction between the tasks and duties or essential functions of the job.
What is the impact of the Supreme Court decision?
Under the Supreme Court ruling, employers are not permitted to distinguish between essential duties and non-essential tasks in their determination of whether a disabled employee is capable of fulfilling his/her role.
Instead, employers must carry out an in-depth assessment of the appropriate measures that could facilitate a disabled employee’s appointment to a position. It is only after giving overall consideration to the question of reasonable accommodation that an employer may refuse to take any appropriate measures on the ground that they would place a ‘disproportionate burden’ on the employer.
It is also helpful from the employer’s perspective that the Supreme Court stated that the duty to provide reasonable accommodation does not require employers to create a different job or new role for the employee.
A further update will follow when the Labour Court hears the case for a second time.
Reduce the risk of discrimination claims
The law on reasonable accommodation is a complex area.
If you have any questions concerning your duties to your employees under employment equality law, or would like to discuss training on this issue, contact the advice line on +353 1 886 0350 to speak with one of our experts.