Ensuring all employees‘ rights and well-being, including those with disabilities, is paramount in any workplace. Employers nationwide have a legal duty to accommodate disabled employees under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Failing to meet this obligation poses ethical concerns and carries the risk of exposing the employer to severe legal repercussions, particularly in the form of constructive dismissal claims from employees.

Constructive dismissal can be a complex concept in employment law. However, it is a critical issue that employers and employees should be aware of. This blog will explore the intricate intersection of an employer’s duty to accommodate disabled employees and the risk of liability for constructive dismissal in Ontario. These areas will be considered in light of a recent decision by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to uphold an employee’s claim involving a breach of the Ontario Human Rights Code and constructive dismissal.

An Employer’s Duty to Accommodate Under the Human Rights Code

Under section 8 of the Ontario Human Rights Code, “employers and unions, housing providers and service providers have a legal duty to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities who are adversely affected by a requirement, rule or standard.” The Ontario Human Rights Commission emphasizes that accommodation is “necessary to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities, access and benefits.”

However, an employer’s duty of accommodation is not absolute. Instead, they are only required to reasonably accommodate an employee’s needs up to the point of undue hardship. The Supreme Court of Canada has outlined that the purpose and goal of accommodation is “to ensure that persons who are otherwise fit to work are not unfairly excluded where working conditions can be adjusted without undue hardship.”

The Link Between a Failure to Accommodate and a Constructive Dismissal Claim

In Ontario, one of the common scenarios leading to a constructive dismissal claim is the failure to accommodate an employee’s disability. If an employee commences a constructive dismissal claim due to their employer’s failure to accommodate, employers need to understand the potential legal implications they may face. If a court or tribunal determines that a constructive dismissal has occurred, the employer may face consequences such as:

  • Damages in the form of monetary compensation;
  • An order requiring the employer to reinstate the employee to their previous position;
  • Legal costs; and
  • Damage to their reputation and an impact on their ability to attract and retain talent.

Employers must recognize the importance of providing reasonable accommodation to meet their legal obligations and foster an inclusive and supportive work environment that values the contributions of all employees.

Employee Claims Employer Failed to Accommodate Medical Disability

In the recent case of Stomp v. 3M Canada, the plaintiff employee was employed with the defendant employer from September 1999 to January 2022. In 2020, the employee left work on a medical leave of absence after suffering a heart attack, fall, and head trauma. In February 2021, the employee returned on a gradual return-to-work basis but claimed he was subjected to a “poisoned and toxic work environment.” The employee alleged that the employer created this environment and repeatedly referred to the employer’s failure to accommodate his medical disability. He also applied for and was approved for long-term disability benefits.

The employee brought a claim against the employer seeking damages for wrongful dismissal. He also claimed that the employer breached the Ontario Human Rights Code by failing to accommodate his disability. In response, the employer brought a motion asking the Ontario Superior Court to strike the employee’s Statement of Claim for not disclosing a reasonable cause of action under the Rules of Civil Procedure.

Court Dismisses Employer’s Motion to Strike Employee’s Claim

The Court stated that under the Court’s Rules, it must determine whether the facts outlined in the Statement of Claim can be established or whether it is plain and obvious that the Statement of Claim discloses no reasonable cause of action. Further, the Court highlighted the fact that section 5 of the Human Rights Code provides that a person has an equal right to treatment regarding employment without discrimination on the basis of several grounds, including disability. Further, the Code also provides an employee the right to freedom from harassment in the workplace, and the employer’s duty to accommodate an employee is a central component of the Human Rights Code.

In its analysis, the Court determined that “it is not plain and obvious” that the employee’s Statement of Claim disclosed no reasonable cause of action. Instead, the Court found the Statement of Claim outlined a claim for constructive dismissal as it asserted “a series of acts that, taken together, show that the employer no longer intends to be bound by the contract.” The Court went on to note:

“The duty to accommodate in the Code is inextricably bound with disability. Thus, an allegation that an employer has failed to accommodate, is really another way of alleging that the employer is discriminating on the basis of disability.”

Accordingly, the Court found that the employee’s action was not solely founded on the employer’s alleged breach of the Human Rights Code. Instead, the case was a claim for violation of the employment contract between the employee and employer in which the employee sought a remedy for the constructive breach of a duty that “the employer will treat the employee with civility, decency, respect and dignity.” As such, the Court dismissed the employer’s motion to strike the employee’s statement of claim.

Critical Constructive Dismissal Information for Employees and Employers

Constructive dismissal claims and the duty to accommodate are two areas of employment law that are critical for both employers and employees to understand. These issues impact not only the legal landscape but also the overall workplace culture and the lives of workers with disabilities. Employees should know their rights and entitlement to reasonable accommodation in the workplace as protected by the Human Rights Code. Further, employees should proactively disclose any limitations or disabilities they have in an effort to facilitate a reasonable accommodation plan with their employer.

Employers, on the other hand, should be open to exploring various options and strategies for an employee’s accommodation. Employers cannot simply declare that they cannot accommodate an employee’s needs because it is not cost-effective. Instead, employers must demonstrate that accommodating the employee would cause them to experience an undue hardship that is objectively tangible and quantifiable with regard to cost.

Contact the Labour and Employment Lawyers at Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP for Advice on Employee Accommodation and Constructive Dismissal

At Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP, our team of experienced labour and employment lawyers regularly advise both employers and employees on a variety of employment and labour law disputes, including wrongful dismissal, human rights issues, and workplace conflict and harassment. If you are dealing with an issue arising from constructive dismissal and/or human rights concerns in the workplace, contact our office by phone at 416-364-9599 or online to schedule a confidential consultation with one of our lawyers.