On October 22, a Manitoba healthcare aide’s decade-long human rights complaint ended with a precedent-setting ruling by a 6/1 majority of the Supreme Court of Canada. The decision, written by Justice Russell Brown, held that labour arbitrators’ exclusive jurisdiction over employee grievances extends to human rights complaints unless expressly “displaced” by other legislation.

Employee Filed Human Rights Complaint Over Addictions-Related Termination

In Northern Regional Health Authority v. Horrocks, the employee was a healthcare aide for a personal care home run by the Northern Regional Health Authority in Manitoba. She struggled with alcohol addiction, which the Health Authority acknowledged was a “physical or mental disability” under the protections of both the collective agreement and Manitoba’s Human Rights Code.

The employee was suspended without pay after being intoxicated at work in 2011. The Health Authority offered to let her return to work on the condition that she sign an agreement requiring her to maintain total abstinence from alcohol (sometimes referred to as a “last-chance agreement”). The employee refused on the grounds that the agreement discriminated against her as a disabled person. She eventually returned to work after agreeing to maintain abstinence, attend counselling, and submit to alcohol testing. The Health Authority, however, fired the employee in 2012 after receiving reports of witnesses observing the employee intoxicated outside of work.

After being advised her union would not support a grievance under the collective agreement, the employee filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission under the provincial Human Rights Code.

Employer Challenged Jurisdiction of Human Rights Adjudicator from Outset

At the Human Rights Commission, the Northern Regional Health Authority challenged the human rights adjudicator’s jurisdiction to hear the matter. The human rights adjudicator disagreed and found the Health Authority had discriminated against the employee as a disabled person under the Human Rights Code.

The Health Authority sought judicial review of the human rights adjudicator’s decision to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench on jurisdictional grounds. While the Health Authority was successful on judicial review, that decision was overturned on appeal to the Manitoba Court of Appeal. The appeal court ruled both the human rights adjudicator and labour arbitrator had jurisdiction over the employee’s matter.

Supreme Court of Canada: Exclusive Jurisdiction of Labour Arbitrator Must Be “Displaced Expressly”

In its October 22 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada explained an arbitrator’s jurisdiction is exclusive if it is not “displaced expressly” by any other law. The court noted, however, there could be concurrent jurisdiction with a competing statutory tribunal even when the arbitrator’s jurisdiction is displaced.

Turning to the circumstances in Horrocks, the court found the labour arbitrator had exclusive jurisdiction over all disputes concerning the “meaning, application, or alleged violation” of the collective agreement as granted by Manitoba’s Labour Relations Act. It further found the Manitoba Human Rights Code did not impede on the arbitrator’s jurisdiction, nor did the Code “clearly express legislative intent to grant concurrent jurisdiction to the arbitrator over such disputes”. By contrast, the court considered the mandatory dispute resolution sections of the Labour Relations Act to be an “explicit indication to oust the operation of human rights legislation”.

The Supreme Court of Canada ultimately allowed the Health Authority’s appeal on the grounds that the labour arbitrator retained exclusive jurisdiction over the employee’s complaint.

Dissent: Concurrent Jurisdiction Allows Employee to Choose Most Appropriate Forum

In her dissent, Justice Karakatsanis wrote the language of Manitoba’s Labour Relations Act was not strong enough to oust the jurisdiction of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. As a result, she found either the labour arbitrator or human rights adjudicator could have decided the matter.

Justice Karakatsanis also found it unacceptable that unionized employees could be left without legal recourse when their union refuses to grieve their discrimination claim. She noted concurrent jurisdiction also gives employees the ability to choose the most appropriate forum to address their concerns:

“For example, if a complainant seeks reinstatement, labour arbitration through union representation may be the better fit. On the other hand, if a complainant seeks a declaration, damages, or systemic changes – rather than the re-establishment of the employment relationship – a human rights tribunal may be the better fit.”

Horrocks May Overturn Prior Appeal Decisions Across Canada

Counsel for the employee in Horrocks noted the Supreme Court’s decision appears to overturn appeal judgments across Canada that found concurrent jurisdiction between labour arbitrators and human rights tribunals. One such case was Ontario (Human Rights Commission) v. Naraine, a 2001 decision where Ontario Court of Appeal found “legislation in Ontario provided for concurrent jurisdiction between human rights tribunals and labour arbitrators”, with human rights legislation being paramount.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on Friday, however, was supported by the Canadian Association of Counsel to Employers (CACE). CACE, an intervenor in the proceedings, praised the decision as clarifying jurisdictional boundaries between labour arbitrators and human rights tribunals. CACE also believes the decision prevents complaints from being heard in multiple forums with potentially conflicting outcomes. Justice Karakatsanis noted in her dissent, however, the existing case law on concurrent jurisdiction requires decision-makers to decide whether to exercise their jurisdiction based on the circumstances of each case.

Contact Toronto Labour and Employment Lawyers Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP for Representation in Labour Arbitrations

It remains to be seen how courts across Canada will interpret and apply the Horrocks decision to unionized workplace disputes. Unionized employees will need to carefully assess the legal basis for their complaints to anticipate potential jurisdictional challenges. Employers also need to be aware of the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision to ensure grievances are handled in the appropriate legal forum.

Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP has been a cornerstone of labour and employment law in Canada for over 30 years. Our dedicated and experienced lawyers can help unionized employees and employers alike navigate complicated jurisdictional issues arising from workplace disputes. Contact us at 416-364-9599 or online to schedule a consultation on your rights and obligations under a collective agreement.