EAT Case Clarifies Reasonable Adjustments for Disabled Employees

Citation: [2024] EAT 37
Judgment on

Introduction

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) case of Rentokil Initial UK Ltd v M Miller ([2024] EAT 37) concerns the intricacies of disability discrimination, specifically the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees and the interpretation of what may constitute such an adjustment. The case touched on several legal principles and precedent cases to weigh the reasonableness of adjustments, the objectiveness of employer decisions, and the shifting of burdens of proof.

Key Facts

Mr. M Miller, who became disabled following a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, was unable to continue his role as a pest control technician due to the significant physical demands. Rentokil Initial UK Ltd concluded he could no longer fulfill his role. When Miller unsuccessfully applied for an alternative service administrator role, he was dismissed. The tribunal initially found for Miller, prompting the appeal by Rentokil.

The EAT considered whether a trial period in a new role could constitute a reasonable adjustment, the effect of shifting the burden of proof, and whether an employer’s assessment of employee suitability for a role is decisive.

Reasonable Adjustments

The core of the case pivots on interpreting the reasonable adjustment duty under section 20(3) of the Equality Act 2010. The EAT reaffirmed that the statute does not place restrictions on the steps that may be considered reasonable adjustments, and that such adjustments need not guarantee to remove the substantial disadvantage, but rather there must be a real prospect of mitigating it.

Trial Period as an Adjustment

The EAT rejected the notion that offering a trial period could not be a reasonable adjustment, countering the obiter dicta in The Environment Agency v Rowan ([2008] ICR 218). Instead, it emphasized that a trial period involves substantive change and may mitigate the risk of dismissal, thereby potentially fulfilling the requirement of a reasonable adjustment.

Burden of Proof

Section 136 of the Equality Act 2010 pertains to the burden of proof in discrimination cases. The case emphasizes that initially, the claimant must prove the existence of facts that indicate a substantial disadvantage, and identify potentially reasonable adjustments. If established, the burden can shift to the employer to demonstrate why such adjustments cannot be reasonably made.

Employer’s Assessment of Suitability

In determining whether an employee is suitable for a different role, the EAT held that the tribunal is bound to make an objective assessment rather than deferring to the employer’s judgment. Practical considerations such as the essential requirements of the role and the outcome of assessments or tests are to be considered, but the tribunal may ultimately decide it was reasonable to offer a trial role despite the employer’s reservations.

Reference to Other Case Law

The EAT discussion was peppered with citations of past cases including Archibald v Fife Council ([2004] ICR 954), Spence v Intype Libra Limited, and Smith v Churchill Stairlifts plc ([2006] ICR 524) to draw parallels and clarify legal stances.

Outcomes

The EAT dismissed the appeal, upholding the original tribunal’s decision that Rentokil Initial UK Ltd failed to make reasonable adjustments by not offering a trial period in the service administrator role. The claims for discrimination arising from disability (section 15 Equality Act 2010) in respect of the dismissal, and unfair dismissal, succeeded based on the failure to provide reasonable adjustments.

Conclusion

Rentokil Initial UK Ltd v M Miller provides significant insight into the realm of reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. The EAT confirms the importance of an objective tribunal analysis on employer decisions regarding the suitability of disabled employees for alternative roles. The decision clarifies that a trial period can be a reasonable adjustment within the meaning of section 20(3) of the Equality Act 2010 and that the burden of proof may shift to the employer once the claimant has shown a prima facie case for failure to make reasonable adjustments. This case stands as guidance for employers in assessing disability accommodations and reinforces the proactive stance required by law towards disabled employees.

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