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Costs of Accommodation: British Columbia Supreme Court Reaffirms High Threshold for Undue Hardship

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In a July 2016 decision, Providence Health Care v. Dunkley, 2016 BCSC 1383, the British Columbia Supreme Court held that Providence Health Care (PHC) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) failed to establish that the costs of providing interpreter services for a deaf medical resident constituted undue hardship.

The decision is a reminder of the demands placed on employers to accommodate, and that a successful undue hardship defence based on financial reasons will require extensive financial disclosure on the part of the employer and related entities.

Briefly, the facts of the case were as follows. The claimant secured a residency position at PHC, a local hospital. Due to a profound hearing loss, she required the use of sign language interpreters. On the residency start date, arrangements for interpreter services had not been made and a few months later, the claimant was placed on paid leave, followed by unpaid leave.  PHC subsequently informed her that accommodation could not be provided and dismissed her from PHC as an employee and from UBC as a resident.  The claimant filed a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, who found that PHC and UBC had discriminated against her on the basis of her physical disability.  The Tribunal concluded that PHC discriminated against the respondent regarding employment, contrary to s. 13 of the British Columbia Human Rights Code, while UBC discriminated against her by denying her accommodation, services or facilities customarily available to the public, contrary to s. 8 of the Code.

On judicial review, the British Columbia Supreme Court upheld the Tribunal’s decision.  The Court reaffirmed that the relevant considerations were the employer’s efforts to accommodate; the options explored and/or offered to the employee; and explanations given for the absence of such offers.

The Court upheld the Tribunal’s finding that PHC had used an unreliable cost estimate, and that both PHC and UBC had failed to undertake a reasonable investigation into the true cost of accommodation. Further, the Court confirmed that PHC could not base its claim of undue hardship only on its own budgetary restrictions.  The financial resources of UBC, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA) and the Ministry of Health were also relevant since those entities were either affiliates of PHC or had agreed to provide it with funding for the UBC residency program.  Consequently, PHC should have explored the possibility of obtaining additional financial resources from those entities or establishing a cost sharing model as part of its investigation into costs.

The Providence Health Care v. Dunkley decision highlights that employers must prove that they have engaged in a comprehensive investigation into the true cost of accommodation, including an assessment of all sources of funding available, before they successfully rely on undue hardship.

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