1 June 2015

Supreme Court judgment: Mandatory extended education agreement in connection with maternity leave

The Supreme Court has established that a trainee was entitled to obtain an extension of her education agreement, which expired during her maternity leave.

Training place did not offer an extension of education agreement

A gardener trainee became pregnant during her education and was therefore unable to complete the education before her pregnancy and maternity leave. In addition, the trainee was put on pregnancy sick leave due to the physical character of the work. The education agreement expired during the trainee's maternity leave, and the employment with the training place ended. The employer did not offer the trainee an extension of her education agreement, and the trainee was therefore unable to finish her education.

In court, the trainee argued that the employer was obligated under section 58 of the Vocational Training Act to extend the trainee's education agreement, which expired during her maternity leave. She demanded compensation for violation of the Vocational Training Act an the Equal Treatment Act.

The High Court: The trainee had not requested an extension

At first, the matter was brought before the Disputes Board, which settles disputes between a trainee and the training place. The Board found that there had been no discrimination contrary to the Equal Treatment Act, and that the Vocational Training Act had been observed as a lack of extension was not comparable to a dismissal.

The trainee then brought the matter before the Eastern High Court, which gave decisive weight to the question whether the trainee had in fact requested an extension of the education agreement vis-à-vis the employer.

On the basis of the evidence, the High Court found that the trainee had not made a written request for an extension of the education agreement vis-à-vis her employer, and for this reason the employer had not acted contrary to the Equal Treatment Act or the Vocational Training Act. The High Court therefore acquitted the employer.

The Supreme Court: Duty to clarify need for extension

The Supreme Court noted that section 58 of the Vocational Training Act enables a trainee and an employer to enter into an agreement to extend the education agreement if the trainee is on leave in connection with pregnancy or maternity leave.

Based on the legislative background of the provision, the Supreme Court stated that a trainee becoming pregnant and commencing her maternity leave before the expiry of the education agreement may demand en extension of the agreement to the necessary extent.  If not, the trainee will be less able to complete the education than trainees who are not pregnant. This will be contrary to the Equal Treatment Act.

The Supreme Court also stated that the employer and the trainee must try to reach agreement on an extension of the education agreement. This initiative will naturally come from the trainee, but the employer is also obligated to clarify - by virtue of the employer's duty to educate the trainee - whether there is a need for extending the education agreement.

In the specific case, the Supreme Court found that the trainee was entitled to have her education agreement extended due to the maternity leave. It had not been proved on the evidence that the trainee had indicated that she did not request an extension.

The Supreme Court found that the employer had acted contrary to section 58 of the Vocational Training Act. The employer's indications in letters to the trainee that she had to return the company's property therefore had to be comparable to a dismissal of the trainee, and section 9 of the Equal Treatment had therefore also been violated.

Regulatory uncertainty resulted in lower compensation

The question of the trainee's right to have the education agreement extended due to absence as a result of pregnancy was a matter subject to considerable regulatory uncertainty. Therefore, the Supreme Court departed from the usual practice for measuring compensation in cases concerning infringement of the Equal Treatment Act and awarded compensation of DKK 40,000, equalling approx. two months' pay.

The Supreme Court did not find any grounds for awarding compensation for unfair dismissal under the Vocational Training Act as such compensation would significantly compensate for the same conditions as the compensation under the Equal Treatment Act.

Comments

The judgment establishes that an employer, by virtue of its obligations to educate the trainee, is also subject to a special obligation to clarify whether the trainee requests an extension of the education agreement due to pregnancy.

It is therefore important for an employer to clarify whether a trainee requests an extension of the education agreement under section 58 of the Vocational Training Act.

Finally, the judgment shows that, in cases of violation of both the Vocational Training Act and the Equal Treatment Act, it is not possible to obtain compensation according to both sets of rules if it compensates for the same conditions.

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