Labour Court decision in case of dismissal of disabled Special Needs Assistant upheld

The High Court has upheld a decision of the Labour Court in which it awarded €40,000 to a woman as a result of her dismissal from a school following her paralysis from the waist down.

Ms Marie Daly, who had worked at Nano Nagle School as a Special Needs Assistant prior to the accident which left her paralysed, had been assessed by occupational health experts, who initially thought that she would be able to return to work.

A report was then submitted to the school in which 16 categories of duties required of Special Needs Assistants were identified, 9 of which it was submitted that Ms Daly would be able to carry out.

It was suggested that Ms Daly could work as a floating Special Needs Assistant, carrying out some aspects of the role of a Special Needs Assistant.

Following this report, a conversation took place between an occupational health physician, Dr Madden, and the school principle, in which the principle stated that the school would be unable to accommodate Ms Daly unless she was able to act as a full Special Needs Assistant.

As a result, Dr Madden completed his third and final assessment of Ms Daly, in which he acknowledged the school’s difficulties in accommodating her and stated that Ms Daily would be unable to act as a full Special Needs Assistant.

The school’s board of management, citing these reports and finding that no ‘floating Special Needs Assistant’ role existed, then wrote to Ms Daly informing her that she was medically unfit for the position of Special Needs Assistant, and effectively dismissing her.

The case was brought to the Labour Court, before which the school argued that s.16 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 “does not require an employer to continue an employee in employment who is not fully capable of undertaking the job that he or she was employed to do”.

The Labour Court found that the school had misunderstood the legislation and had never seriously considered the possible ways in which Ms Daly might have been accommodated.

It further found that the school’s unwillingness to do so resulted in Dr Madden’s final report and that because Ms Daly was found to be unable to carry out the full range of tasks required of a Special Needs Assistant, she was dismissed.

Further, it was found that the school had failed to consult with the employee in the drafting of the reports.

The Labour Court accordingly awarded Ms Daly €40,000 in compensation.

On appeal, the school argued that the High Court could set aside the Labour Court’s findings if it were clear they had no evidential basis.

It was argued that the Court had ignored evidence in which an occupational health expert expressed a belief that Ms Daly could not work as a Special Needs Assistant in a reorganised environment.

It was also argued that the Court had misinterpreted s.16 of theEmployment Equality Act, interpreting it as “to require the employer to reorganise and restructure the job so that the employee would only be required to carry out the essential duties of the job so restructured rather than the original job itself”.

The school also submitted that the Court had incorrectly found that the school had a duty to consult with Ms Daly, and that the Court had failed to consider the disproportionate financial burden which would be imposed on the employer were the school to reorganise the job to suit Ms Daly.

Citing Henry Denny and Sons (Ireland) Ltd v. Minister for Social Welfare 1 IR 34, the High Court noted that its jurisdiction with regards to decisions of the Labour Court was limited, and that where findings of fact were concerned, the Court could not intervene unless the findings lacked evidential basis.

In considering the school’s arguments, it found that the school had not established that the Labour Court had ignored evidence, and that there was ample evidence available to support the Court’s findings.

With regards to the Employment Equality Act, the Court found that the school had incorrectly interpreted s.16. Indeed, “were the school’s position correct, it would seem difficult to envisage any circumstances in which a person suffering from a disability could be reasonably accommodated.”

Rather, “it is clear that a person with a disability is, for the purposes of the Act, to be regarded as fully competent to undertake and fully capable of undertaking the duties of a given job if such person would be so competent and capable on the distribution of tasks associated with that job being adapted by the employer.”

As held by the Court of Justice for the European Union in HK Danmark acting on behalf of Ring (applicant) v Dansk Almennyttigt Boligselskab (respondent) IRLR, the adaptation of patterns of working time must include the elimination of some of that working time, subject always to the caveat that the measures must not impose a disproportionate burden on the employer.

The High Court found that the Labour Court’s interpretation, that it is for the national court to assess if a redistribution of tasks represents a disproportionate burden on the facts of a particular case, was logical, and that the Court’s general findings in the case were open to the Labour Court on the evidence.

It was noted that the Labour Court had not made any determination that Ms. Daly ought to have been accommodated by the school in any particular way. Rather, the Labour Court was of the view that the school simply did not consider the possible options that were available.

As the Labour Court’s decision was neither irrational nor based on an erroneous interpretation of law, the High Court dismissed the appeal.

  • by Rachel Killean for Irish Legal News
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