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Balancing Rights of Privacy with Accommodation of Invisible Disabilities: Employers Have Rights and Employees Have Obligations Too

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An employer’s duty to accommodate employees with disabilities to the point of undue hardship is well known and particularly challenging when it comes to accommodating employees with invisible disabilities, such as mental illness. What has been less thoroughly canvassed are the obligations of employees seeking accommodation, particularly when it comes to the disclosure of medical information that would otherwise be private. A recent arbitration board decision: Complex Services Inc. (c.o.b. as Casino Niagara and Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort) v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Local 278, 2012 CanLII 8645 thoroughly and thoughtfully considers these very thorny issues and how they must be balanced.

At issue in the case were two competing grievances: a union grievance alleging discrimination and harassment in the accommodation process including the employer’s imposition of an unpaid medical leave of absence and an employer grievance alleging failure on the part of the grievor to provide medical evidence to support her accommodation demands. The grievor, a security associate, claimed two disabilities: one physical with respect to which the employer had implemented accommodation requirements and one mental that was the source of the dispute. The grievor advised the employer of the accommodation she required for her mental illness (which included certain shift times and days worked and “to only deal with one matter at a time” with respect to certain managers only and with union representation present), but, in no uncertain terms, refused to provide medical documentation in support for confidential medical privacy reasons.

In a unanimous decision, the chair of the arbitration panel, George Surdykowski, succinctly sets out each party’s respective rights and obligations in the accommodation process. His findings include the following:

  • “In the purely technical sense of the term, an employee has an ‘absolute’ right to keep her confidential medical information private. But if she exercises that right in a way that thwarts the employer’s exercise of its legitimate rights or obligations, or makes it impossible for the employer to provide appropriate necessary accommodation, there are likely to be consequences, because an employee has no right to sick leave benefits or accommodation unless she provides sufficient reliable evidence to establish that she is entitled to benefits, or that she has a disability that actually requires accommodation and the accommodation required. Although an employer cannot discipline an employee for refusing to disclose confidential medical information, the employee may be denied sick benefits, or it may be appropriate for the employer to refuse to allow the employee to continue or return to work until necessary such information is provided.” [para. 86]
  • “The Human Rights Commission’s Policy indicates the employee has an obligation to ask for accommodation and to provide sufficient information, including necessary otherwise private confidential medical information, to establish the accommodation required, and to participate in and facilitate both the search for and implementation of accommodation – whether or not the accommodation available is ‘perfect’ from the grievor’s subjective perspective. The employer has a legitimate need for sufficient information to permit it to satisfy its accommodation obligations. An employee can neither expect accommodation if she withholds the information to establish that she requires it, nor dictate the accommodation required.” [para. 88]
  • “Accommodation is a matter of equal treatment required by the Code. It is not intended to be, and no employee is entitled to, a superior working arrangement merely because that is what she wants or thinks is best.” [para. 89]
  • “The cases demonstrate that the following otherwise confidential medical information will generally be required for accommodation purposes:

1. The nature of the illness and how it manifests as a disability (which may include diagnosis, particularly in cases of mental illness).

2. Whether the disability (if not the illness) is permanent or temporary, and the prognosis in that respect (i.e. the extent to which improvement is anticipated, and the time frame for same).

3. The restrictions or limitations that flow from the disability (i.e. a detailed synopsis of what the employee can and cannot do in relation to the duties and responsibilities of her normal job duties, and possible alternative duties).

4. The basis for the medical conclusions (i.e. nature of illness and disability, prognosis, restrictions), including the examinations or tests performed (but not necessarily the test results or clinical notes in that respect).

5. The treatment, including medication (and possible side effects) which may impact on the employee’s ability to perform her job, or interact with management, other employees, or customers.” [para. 95]

  • “It is cases of invisible disability, particularly mental illness, that questions most often arise about an individual’s request for particular accommodation and the adequacy of supporting information. The employer is entitled to seek confirmation or additional information from an appropriate medical health professional to obtain further information if there is a reasonable and bona fide basis for doing so. … Although an [Independent Medical Examination] is a resource of last resort, there are cases in which one is necessary and appropriate. An employee who exercises her right to refuse the incontestably intrusive IME when one is objective justified may find herself unable to continue or return to the work.” [para. 118]

The decision is a balanced consideration of what is required to make the accommodation process succeed in cases of invisible disabilities. To the extent that it thoroughly outlines both the employer and the employee’s role in this process, it provides welcome guidance for employers.

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