Terminating an employee based on their inability to perform the inherent requirements of a job
To successfully defend an unfair dismissal claim, an employer must be able to satisfy the Fair Work Commission (FWC) that the dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable. This is done by establishing that the employer had a valid reason to terminate the employee, and that the process followed in the lead-up to the decision was procedurally fair.
Section 387 of the Fair Work Act sets out the criteria for determining whether a dismissal is harsh, unjust or unreasonable.
Specifically, section 387(a) requires the FWC to take into account:
"Whether there was a valid reason for the dismissal related to the person's capacity or conduct..."
Until recently, there was a notable discrepancy regarding how to determine whether there had been a valid reason for termination based on an employee's capacity. These cases looked specifically at whether or not the mere existence of medical evidence/a medical report that had been reasonably relied on by an employer would be sufficient in itself to determine the issue.
The approach adopted in Lion Dairy & Drinks Milk Ltd v Norman  FWCFB 4218 ('Lion Diary case') brought about the following decisions:
- The FWC is not in a position to make an expert medical assessment.
- It is considered the end of the matter if the employer has reasonably relied on medical evidence - even if the employee presents conflicting evidence.
- It will generally be the employer's responsibility to resolve the conflict if there is a dispute relating to the relevant medical opinions presented as evidence.
However, the approach adopted in Jetstar Airways Ltd v Neeteson-Lemkes  FWCFB 9075 ('Jetstar case') put forward the following conflicting points:
- In a dismissal matter related to an employee's capacity, the FWC is required to consider all medical evidence presented by both parties and make a finding as to whether the employee suffered the alleged incapacity at the time of the dismissal.
- There is no basis to leave the resolution of any conflict in medical opinion up to the discretion of the employer.
Fortunately, this aforementioned discrepancy has now been resolved thanks to CSL Limited T/A CSL Behring v Chris Papaioannou  FWCFB 1005 - which is now referred to as the leading authority on the matter. In this particular case, the Full Bench of the FWC held that:
- The approach taken in the Jetstar case is the correct one.
- The FWC is required to make a finding as to whether the applicant suffered from the alleged incapacity at the time of the dismissal. As such, a finding is to be based on the relevant evidence before the FWC.
- The FWC is frequently called upon to resolve evidentiary conflict, including the assessment of expert evidence - and thus there is no basis to leave the resolution of any such conflict between competing medical reports up to the employer.
What does this mean for you?
- In circumstances where there are competing reports, regardless of whether an employer's decision to terminate an employee has been supported by a view expressed by a suitably qualified medical practitioner - it is not guaranteed that the FWC will automatically endorse this particular medical practitioner's view.
- To maximise the chances of the medical opinion/report that you are relying on being accepted by the FWC - you must make sure that the medical practitioner:
- is suitably qualified;
- has been made aware of the inherent requirements of the job;
- bases their assessment on the inherent requirements of the job; and
- has actually had the opportunity to properly assess the employee's condition and potential restrictions.
If you are grappling with a decision over whether or not to terminate an employee due to the fact that they may not be able to perform the inherent requirements of the job for which they were employed - please get in contact with Anna Ford, or anyone else in Coleman Greig's Employment Law team before taking any action.
We are able to make sure that you proceed both appropriately and effectively in order to limit your exposure to a Fair Work Commission claim.