The High Court case of Nano Nagle School v Marie Daly came before the Court as an appeal on a point of law against a determination of the Labour Court regarding the School’s failure to reasonably accommodate Ms. Daly, a Special Needs Assistant.
Ms. Daly was employed as a Special Needs Assistant (SNA) by the school, which was a school for children with disabilities, who also undertook some part-time secretarial duties. Ms. Daly was involved in an accident in 2010 which left her paralysed from the waist down and she was subsequently dismissed from the school, which claimed that their occupational health expert had advised the school that Ms. Daly lacked the capacity to fully undertake the duties of a SNA.
Ms. Daly initially brought a claim to the Equality Tribunal on the basis that the school had failed to make reasonable accommodation for her disability, pursuant to section 16 of the Employment Equality Acts. The Tribunal did not found for her and so Ms. Daly then appealed to the Labour Court. The Labour Court found for Ms. Daly on appeal and noted that the school’s refusal to allow her return to work was based on the mistaken belief that its duty was confined to providing her with such accommodation as might enable her to undertake the full range of tasks expected from an SNA. The Labour Court held further that the school had construed the duty of reasonably accommodation too narrowly and that the duty should have been given a broad ambit.
The school subsequently appealed on a number of points of law to the High Court, which included the following arguments: – that the Court had wrongly construed section 16 of the Employment Equality Acts and that it had wrongly analysed the evidence of the occupational health therapist.
High Court Decision
Firstly, as regards the evidence of the occupational health therapist, Mr. Justice Noonan noted that there was an evident disparity between the therapist’s opinion before the intervention of the school principal and his opinion afterwards and, as a result, the Labour Court had to resolve this disparity.
The more important part of the case was regarding the interpretation of section 16 of the Employment Equality Acts. Judge Noonan noted that the school’s original stance on the interpretation of “reasonable accommodation” was that the school only had to provide reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee where it would leave the employee in a position to perform the totality of their job. Judge Noonan noted that the school subsequently changed their position on the second day of the High Court appeal and noted that if such an interpretation was given to the duty of reasonable accommodation then it would be difficult to envisage any circumstances in which a person with a disability could be reasonably accommodated.
Judge Noonan did point out that the Labour Court had not decided that Ms. Daly should have been accommodated in a certain way, but rather the school simply had not considered the options available.
So what does this judgment mean for employers?
What this judgment shows is that an employer will have to produce evidence to prove to any court or tribunal that they exhausted their “reasonable accommodation” duty and that they did consider the possible redistribution of an employee’s tasks. The judgment also highlights that employers cannot dismiss an employee and then defend their actions by saying that the employee wasn’t fully able to complete all their duties as a result of their disability.
This judgment is welcome news for employee with a disability but may prove to be a HR nightmare for employers!
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