Education Update: Court of Appeal Overturns High Court Nano Nagle School Judgment
28 February 2018
Ms Marie Daly, a Special Needs Assistant in Nano Nagle Special National School, sustained severe injuries in a road traffic accident in 2010 which left her confined to a wheelchair. Ms Daly looked to return to work in 2011 but the school determined that it could not accommodate her in her position as SNA. In refusing her request, the school cited the physically demanding requirements of her role. Ms Daly brought a claim under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 (EEA). Ms Daly’s claim was not of discriminatory dismissal. Rather, she argued that the school had failed to take appropriate measures to allow her to participate in employment.
Ms Daly was unsuccessful in the Equality Tribunal and appealed to the Labour Court. Her appeal was successful and the Labour Court awarded her €40,000 in compensation. The school appealed to the High Court in late 2015, which upheld the decision of the Labour Court.
The case turned on the construction of section 16 of the EEA. This section requires employers to take “appropriate measures” to enable a person who has a disability to have access to employment, participate and advance in employment and undergo training, unless the measures would impose a disproportionate burden on the employer.
Following her accident, Ms Daly was assessed by an occupational health specialist who found that she was unable to perform seven of the 16 tasks associated with the job of an SNA. The seven tasks in question were the most physically demanding.
The Labour Court and High Court had found that the school had failed to consider whether the duties which Ms Daly could no longer perform could be stripped away and redistributed among the other SNAs. In both cases, the Courts found that the school’s failure to even consider a redistribution of Ms Daly’s duties caused the school to be in breach of section 16.
The Court of Appeal, however, found that Ms Daly was unable to perform the essential tasks of an SNA in her particular school and that no amount of accommodation could change this. The Court of Appeal went on to state that there is no legal requirement on an employer to strip away essential tasks of a position which an employee can no longer perform or to redistribute these tasks to other employees. It followed that if there was no requirement on the school to redistribute some of Ms Daly’s tasks to other employees, the school could be under no obligation to consider doing so.
The judgment suggests that an employer is not required to alter the duties of a position held by an employee with a disability in order to accommodate that employee’s return to work if the duties, which the employee is no longer capable of performing, are considered essential to the employee’s position. In this case, there was no dispute as to the 16 core duties of an SNA in Nano Nagle Special National School, or that Ms Daly was incapable of performing seven of those duties, even if the school took appropriate measures.
The Court did signal, however, that if challenged, an employer may have to justify the inclusion of a duty, which an employee with a disability is incapable of performing, regardless of any appropriate measures, as one of the essential functions or duties of the position concerned.
For more information on your obligations towards employees with a disability, please contact a member of our Education team.