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Human Rights claims in the Ontario courts – Now What?

Way back in 2008, the Ontario Human Rights Code was amended to permit human rights claims to be piggybacked onto wrongful dismissal actions in the Ontario courts.  Prior to that time, the only recourse for an employee with a discrimination claim was to make a complaint to the [then] Human Rights Commission.  Some 5 years later, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has recently released its very first decision in a joint wrongful dismissal/discrimination action.

The case in question was the September decision of Justice Grace in Wilson v. Solis Mexican Foods Inc.  Patricia Wilson was a 16 month employee at the time of her termination, and off work due to back problems.  The reason given for Ms. Wilson’s termination was a corporate reorganization, but the court found that reasoning “[defied] common sense” as Ms. Wilson was never told about the impending reorganization while it was taking place.  The court looked closely at the communications between Ms. Wilson’s doctor and employer, and found that the only conclusion that could be drawn was that the employer was not happy with Ms. Wilson’s ongoing back problems and absences from work, or her requests for accomodation.  Justice Grace reiterated that as long as an employee’s disability is a factor in the decision to terminate, there will be a finding of discrimination.  That is the case whether the disability is the sole factor or simply one small factor in the decision-making process.  In this case it was clear to the judge that Ms. Wilson’s back problems were a significant factor in the decision to terminate, but the result would have been the same even if her back problems were but one factor along with the reorganization.

Having determined that Ms. Wilson had been discriminated against, the court awarded her $20,000 due to the fact that she “lost the right to be free from discrimination” and experienced “victimization”, and due to the fact that the employer orchestrated her dismissal and was disingenuous both before and during the termination.  That amount was in addition to the damages received in lieu of notice of termination.

Interestingly, the court did not comment on whether or not reinstatement of employment was an option, thereby leaving that issue to another court on another day.  While employees pursuing complaints at the Human Rights Tribunal can seek reinstatement, and while the Human Rights Code appears to permit courts to make similar orders, we still have no guidance as to whether reinstatement will become a tool used by our courts.

To view the decision, click here:  http://canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2013/2013onsc5799/2013onsc5799.html

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Human Rights claims in the Ontario courts – Now What?

Bill 14 Receives Royal Assent: British Columbia Employees To Receive Workers’ Compensation for Bullying and Harassment

This Post also appears on occupationalhealthandsafetylaw.com.

Bill 14, or the Workers’ Compensation Amendment Act, 2011 received Royal Assent on May 31, 2012. Among other things, the Act expressly addresses bullying and harassment, and amends section 5.1 of the Workers’ Compensation Act. Section 5.1 currently requires that, in order to receive workers compensation benefits for a mental disorder, the mental disorder must have been an acute reaction to an event in the workplace. Come July 1, 2012, an employee will have a compensable claim for mental stress resulting from: traumatic events in the workplace; a significant work-related stressor; or a cumulative series of significant work-related stressors.

WorkSafeBC, the entity tasked with the administration and implementation of the Workers’ Compensation Act, must bring its Policies (which are applied by the Officers of the Workers’ Compensation Board in the course of adjudicating claims) into line with these changes to Section 5.1.

To this end, WorkSafeBC’s Policy and Regulation Division has developed a draft Policy which addresses the changes to the way claims of mental disorder are adjudicated. The Discussion Paper accompanying the draft Policy identifies the challenges of adjudicating claims of gradual onset stress, and notes the lack of experience with such claims at the Workers’ Compensation Board. However, the Policy, among other things, attempts to put some limits on the stress claims that may be advanced by employees by requiring that the stressor complained of must exceed the intensity or duration expected of the normal pressures associated with the workplace, and excludes interpersonal conflicts to the extent those conflicts do not include threatening or abusive behaviour such as bullying or harassment. Regardless however, it appears that Officers of the Board will retain a fair bit of discretion as to what stressors will, and will not, be accepted in the context of the new Section 5.1 and Policy, and employers can expect that the bounds of this discretion will be the subject of challenge at at least the Board and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal.

In contrast to British Columbia’s new and broad approach to claims of mental disorder, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Manitoba have all implemented legislation which limits an employee’s ability to claim compensation for gradual onset stress.

WorkSafeBC estimates that the acceptance of claims under the new Section 5.1 will result in the acceptance of an additional 300 wage-loss claims annually, with an estimated cost impact of $18 to $20 million dollars.

WorkSafeBC is currently accepting stakeholder feedback on the proposed new Policy until June 15, 2012. The Discussion Paper and draft Policy can be accessed at: http://www.worksafebc.com/regulation_and_policy/policy_consultation/assets/pdf/Bill14/Bill14MentalDisorder.pdf

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Bill 14 Receives Royal Assent: British Columbia Employees To Receive Workers’ Compensation for Bullying and Harassment

L’importance de la disposition de cessation d’emploi

La décision qu’a rendue la Cour supérieure de justice de l’Ontario (CSJO) dans l’affaire Wright v. The Young and Rubicam Group of Companies a confirmé que les dispositions de cessation d’emploi qui figurent dans les contrats de travail ne seront pas reconnues valides si le texte de celles-ci est ambigu.

En 2005, Wright a été embauché à titre de cadre par la société défenderesse. Avant son premier jour de travail, il avait déjà signé un contrat prévoyant des droits en cas de cessation d’emploi, lesquels allaient d’une semaine de préavis à 34 semaines de salaire de base, selon le nombre d’années de service. Lorsqu’il a été congédié en 2010, Wright a reçu 13 semaines de salaire en guise de préavis, conformément au contrat en question. Insatisfait du montant reçu, il a intenté une action et présenté une requête en jugement sommaire.

Lors de l’audience, la juge Low a invalidé le contrat de travail, car elle estimait, comme Wright, que ce dernier aurait dû recevoir le préavis de licenciement prévu sous le régime de la common law. Le contrat a été invalidé pour deux raisons. Premièrement, le contrat ne respectait pas les normes minimales fixées par la Loi de 2000 sur les normes d’emploi de l’Ontario (la « LNE ») et, par conséquent, M. Wright aurait pu toucher une indemnité plus élevée, pour quelques-unes des années visées, en vertu du délai de préavis prescrit et de la prestation de départ prévue par la LNE qu’en vertu des clauses de son contrat. Cela n’est pas permis, même dans les cas où il n’existe qu’une faible possibilité que le contrat soit moins généreux que la LNE. La deuxième raison, mais la plus importante, c’est que la disposition sur la cessation d’emploi ne contenait aucune mention relative au traitement des avantages sociaux durant la période vidée par le préavis. La juge Low n’a pas jugé pertinent le fait que les avantages sociaux aient été fournis à Wright durant la période visée par son préavis statutaire et a déclaré que la disposition sur la cessation d’emploi aurait dû énoncer clairement les droits aux avantages sociaux, de même que les droits en matière de préavis et d’indemnité de départ.

Peu importe la fréquence à laquelle votre société examine et révise ses contrats de travail, un examen approfondi est toujours recommandé. De plus, à la lumière du jugement de la CSJO, les employeurs devraient envisager d’inclure, dans leurs contrats de travail, le traitement des avantages sociaux en cas de cessation d’emploi.

Wright v. The Young and Rubicam Group of Companies :
http://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2011/2011onsc4720/2011onsc4720.html

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L’importance de la disposition de cessation d’emploi

The “Wright” Way to Draft a Termination Provision

In the recently released Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision in Wright v. The Young and Rubicam Group of Companies, it was confirmed that a termination provision in an employment agreement will not be upheld if there are any ambiguities in the language of the provision.

Wright was hired in 2005 as an executive at the defendant company.  He signed an agreement prior to his start date, which provided for entitlements on termination ranging from 1 week of notice to 34 weeks of base salary, depending upon his length of service.  On being terminated in 2010, he was given 13 weeks of pay in lieu of notice pursuant to that agreement.  Unhappy with that amount, he commenced a claim and brought a motion for summary judgment.

At the hearing, Justice Low overturned the employment contract and agreed with Wright that he should have received common law notice of termination. The contract was overturned for two reasons.  First, because it did not track the language of the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (Ontario) (the “ESA”) carefully, there were a few years under which Wright might have earned more by way of statutory notice and statutory severance under the ESA than under his contract.  That is not permitted, even in cases where it is only a contingent possibility that a contract may undercut the ESA.  Secondly and more importantly, the termination provision did not mention the treatment of benefits during the notice period.  Justice Low found that it was irrelevant that benefits were in fact provided to Wright during his statutory notice period, and stated that the termination provision should have clearly set out the benefits entitlement as well as the notice and severance entitlement.

No matter how many times your company may review and revise its employment agreements, a further review is always recommended.  And in light of this decision, employers should consider dealing, in the employment agreement, with treatment of benefits on termination.

Wright v. The Young and Rubicam Group of Companieshttp://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2011/2011onsc4720/2011onsc4720.html

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The “Wright” Way to Draft a Termination Provision