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Employers Take Note: Duty to Reasonably Accommodate Clarified by Court of Appeal

  • Ireland
  • General

19-02-2018

The Court of Appeal has clarified the extent of an employer’s duty to “reasonably accommodate” an employee who suffers from a disability.

Irish law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability. The concept of a “disability” is extremely broad and can include conditions such as autism, dyslexia, cancer, HIV and even alcoholism.

The law also requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodation” in certain circumstances. This obligation is triggered where “appropriate measures” would enable an employee who suffers from a disability to do his/her job. This could include the adaption of premises and equipment, patterns of working time, distribution of tasks or the provision of training or integration resources.

However, there are two limitations, which narrow the obligation to reasonably accommodate:

  • Where this would impose a disproportionate burden on the employer; and
  • Where, despite implementing appropriate measures, the employee would still not be capable of doing his/her job.

The recent Court of Appeal decision concerning Ms Marie Daly, a former employee of Nano Nagle School, has clarified the scope of the latter limitation in particular.

The Facts

Ms Daly was an admired and long-serving Special Needs Assistant (“SNA”) of Nano Nagle School, a special school catering for children with varying degrees of disability. In 2010, Ms Daly was involved in a serious road collision, which left her wheelchair-bound. When she sought to return to her job, the school had her assessed by its nominated occupational health advisers. These assessments concluded that even with reasonable accommodation, Ms Daly would not be able to fulfil 7/16 of the main duties of her role. While the assessments suggested that she could be employed as a “floating SNA”, there was no such position available.

The school concluded that its obligation to reasonably accommodate was not triggered, as even with appropriate measures being implemented, she would still not be capable of undertaking the full set of her duties. The school therefore informed Ms Daly that it would not be possible for her to return to work. She subsequently brought a claim against the school alleging that it had failed to reasonably accommodate her.

Decisions of Labour Court and High Court

While Ms Daly was initially unsuccessful with her claim before the Equality Tribunal, she successfully appealed to the Labour Court. The Labour Court held that the school had misunderstood the extent of its obligations to reasonably accommodate Ms Daly. While the school had taken the view that the obligation to reasonably accommodate was only triggered where this would enable Ms Daly to fulfil all of her main duties (ie 16/16), the Labour Court disagreed. It held that the school had a duty to consider the redistribution of the main duties that she was no longer capable of fulfilling. The High Court upheld the Labour Court’s decision. 

Decision of Court of Appeal

The questions which came before the Court of Appeal were:

(a) whether the school was obliged to create the new role of “floating SNA”; and
(b) whether the school should have considered redistributing the main duties which Ms Daly was no longer capable of fulfilling.

In relation to the “floating SNA” role, the Court of Appeal held that there is no obligation on an employer to create a new role for an employee with a disability.

In relation to the redistribution of tasks, the Court of Appeal confirmed that the duty to reasonably accommodate could extend to redistributing tasks amongst other staff members.  However, the Court held that this extends only to “tasks that are not essential”; it does not extend to stripping away essential tasks/duties. The Court therefore held that there was no obligation on the school to redistribute the essential duties, which Ms Daly could no longer perform.

The Court also noted that in this case, the nature of the school, the needs of the pupils and the particular requirements of the job of an SNA were relevant. The pupils themselves needed physical, hands on care, which Ms Daly was no longer able to provide. The Court understood that the school was simply “not in a position to take chances with care and safety obligations”.

Key Learning

The decision is helpful in clarifying the scope of an employer’s duty to reasonably accommodate:

  • There is no obligation on an employer to create a new role for an employee with a disability.
  • An employer should consider redistributing non-essential tasks/duties amongst other staff members if this would enable the employee to do his/her job.
  • There is no obligation on an employer to redistribute essential tasks.
  • The extent to which an employer is required to reasonably accommodate an employee will depend on the facts.
  • When evaluating an employee’s disability and the level of reasonable accommodation required, expert medical evidence should always be sought.
  • If an employee is unable to perform the main/essential tasks of his/her role, this may constitute grounds for dismissal on the grounds of incapacity.

It remains to be seen whether this case will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full terms and conditions on our website.

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