FOI reconsideration order highlights important timing issue for Ontario institutions

On May 14th, the IPC/Ontario dismissed a request for reconsideration based on an asserted change of circumstances, a somewhat common happening given the lengthy period of time it now takes to process an FOI appeal.

The IPC had earlier affirmed a decision to deny access to certain information about the OPP’s use of cell site simulators on the basis that the information could reasonably be expected to “reveal investigative techniques and procedures currently in use in law enforcement.” After the IPC made this appeal decision, the requester learned that the OPP had switched to a new model of simulator, apparently after she made her request and before the IPC made its decision. The requester asked for reconsideration so she did not have to start again (by filing a new request and potentially re-arguing an appeal). The requester argued the Ministry’s exemption claim could not stand in light of the “new evidence.”

Assistant-Commissioner Liang declined the reconsideration request, but only on the basis that the newly proffered evidence would not have led her to make a different decision in any event. Assistant-Commissioner Liang noted that the Ministry had not deliberately withheld key evidence, which the IPC has treated as a basis for reconsideration. She did not comment on whether the Ministry ought to have brought forward the change in circumstances or whether its failure to do so might warrant reconsideration.

Appeal hearings are about the propriety of an access decision that is made at a point in time, though can invite respondent institutions to make representations about prospective harms. It goes without saying that institutions should not misrepresent the state of affairs in existence at the time they file their materials with the IPC. And if they have made accurate representations and the circumstances later change, there should be no duty to bring those circumstances to the attention of the IPC and no consequence for failing to do so. This would be a very heavy and impractical burden to bear, and would do harm to the finality owed to respondents. Requesters can and should be made to file new requests that can be the subject of fresh consideration and new access decisions.

Ontario (Solicitor General) (Re), 2020 CanLII 34928 (ON IPC).

No privacy violation to tell complainants that complaint resolved by taking “action”

On February 10th, Arbitrator Oakley dismissed a grievance that alleged a university had violated a professor’s privacy by advising students that it had taken “action” to address their complaint.

Forty-three students complained about a failure to conduct sufficient evaluation by the eighth week of the term as well as inconsistent grading. The Dean investigated and issued a written warning, both actions immediately grieved by the professor and their faculty association. The Dean then sent the following communication to the complainants:

Dear Concerned Students,

Thank you for your patience.

The complaints were reviewed with [G] and the Mount Allison Faculty Association and the University took action to ensure the issues raised were addressed. This action is the subject of a grievance under the relevant collective agreement and is scheduled for arbitration in November. Collective agreements are contracts between an employer and a union governing the relationships between unionized employees and their employer. I cannot disclose any further information until the grievance is resolved by agreement or through arbitration. Please be assured that the issues you raised have been taken seriously by the University and we thank you for raising your concerns.

The professor and faculty association grieved again, relying on provincial privacy legislation, the intrusion tort and a provision of the collective agreement that prohibited the university from disclosing information in the official file.

Arbitrator Oakley dismissed the privacy grievance. He was very careful to root the decision in the facts, stressing that the university did not imply that it had disciplined the grievor.

It is entirely appropriate for Arbitrator Oakley to be so reserved, but it ought to be said that complainants of all kinds have a strong interest in knowing how their complaints are resolved and ought not to be deprived of the basic facts pertaining to resolution, in my own view even if that includes facts about discipline imposed. Privacy is not absolute and does not preclude the meeting of valid competing interests.

Mount Allison Faculty Association v Mount Allison University, 2020 CanLII 33895 (NB LA).

Court says privilege in letters left online waived

On May 5th the Court of Appeal for Newfoundland and Labrador affirmed a finding that a party had waived its solicitor-client privilege in two letters that had been published online.

The letters contained legal opinions to a defendant to an outstanding civil action. They were authored about five and nine years before the action was commenced, but apparently are “highly relevant” to the action. The plaintiffs downloaded the letters from the internet and produced them back to the defendant, which provoked the defendant’s privilege claim.

The defendant had learned the documents were circulating about six months prior to receiving the plaintiffs’ production when contacted by a CBC reporter and one of the plaintiffs (who also posted the letters on her Facebook). It decided not to attempt to take down the letters from the internet because of the expense and, in the Court’s words, because “the genie was out of the bottle and control over the documents would be virtually impossible to maintain.” Strangely, the defendant did not advise its defence counsel of the problem, so defence counsel only asserted privilege after receiving production (again, about six months later).

In these circumstances, the Court of Appeal held that privilege had been waived. Its key findings were as follows:

    • The defendant itself was aware of the publication of the letters well before the plaintiffs produced the letters in the litigation, but did not assert privilege against the plaintiffs. That defence counsel did not know that the letters were circulating until the plaintiffs produced them was irrelevant. Privilege belongs to the client, not its counsel.
    • Plaintiff counsel’s act of downloading of the letters from the internet for use in the litigation ought not be presumed to be improper. Although the Court confirmed that opposing counsel are obliged not to take advantage of an inadvertent disclosure of privileged communications, in this case the letters were somewhat old and it appears that the existence of an inadvertent disclosure was simply not reasonably apparent.
    • It was not wrong for the application judge to consider the lack of evidence about safeguarding efforts in deciding the waiver issue against the defendant: “A privilege-holder ought to be able to provide some evidence of how the privileged documents were safe-guarded to protect the privilege for it is within its power to do so.”

This is a careful judgement that’s directed at the facts. In my reading of it, the Court leaves some (though perhaps limited) room to assert privilege against an opposing party in litigation even though documents make their way inadvertently to the internet and are left there because “the genie is out of the bottle.”

Federation of Newfoundland Indians Inc. v Benoit, 2020 NLCA 16 (CanLII).

Privacy claim against documentary makers dismissed

On April 23rd, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed two privacy claims brought against the makers of a documentary – one based on the misappropriation of personality tort and the other based on the intrusion upon seclusion tort.

Wiseau (and others) brought the claims against the makers of a movie called Room Full of Spoons – a documentary about Wiseau and his own infamous movie, The Room. The Room has become notorious as one of the worst movies ever made. Room Full of Spoons disclosed Wiseau’s birthdate, birth name and place of birth, facts available to the public but not widely known, in part because Wiseau’s cultivation of mystery about his background.

Wiseau aggressively objected to the release of Room Full of Spoons, according to the Court, in part because he held a financial interest in a competing film. He obtained an injunction in 2017 that was held to have been improperly obtained, leaving Wiseau on the hook for $750,000 in damages.

In addition to making this damages order, Justice Schabas wrote a lengthy judgement that adresses fair dealing and related copyright issues, a passing off claim and various pre-trial and trial procedure issues. I’ll just address his disposition of the two privacy claims.

Justice Schabas dismissed the misappropriation of personality claim because Wiseau was a public figure who cultivated interest (and mystery) in his personality. The defendants’ use of Wiseau’s image to promote Room Full of Spoons (which was limited) was therefore not actionable. Justice Schabas followed Gould Estate, and held that use of Wiseau’s image served the purpose of contributing accurate information “to the public debate of political or social issues or of providing the free expression of creative talent” and was not primarily a means of “commercial exploitation.”

Justice Schabas dismissed the intrusion upon seclusion claim for reasons unrelated to the defendants’ right of expression, finding no “highly offensive” intrusion at all:

Wiseau has failed to make out the elements of the tort in this case.  No personal details of the kind referred to in Jones v. Tsige were disclosed by the defendants. Rather, what was disclosed was Wiseau’s birthplace, his birthdate, and the name he was given at birth and had as a child in Poland. This information was available from public sources, which is how the defendants obtained and confirmed it. Wiseau may be sensitive about this information because he has cultivated an aura of mystery around it, but disclosure of these facts is not, objectively speaking, something which can be described as “highly offensive.”

The idea that Wiseau’s privacy claim could not be sustained because his information was publicly available is significant, though consistent with traditional notions of privacy and confidentiality.

Wiseau Studio, LLC et al. v. Harper et al., 2020 ONSC 2504 (CanLII).

Cyber, secrecy and the public body

Here’s a copy of a presentation I gave yesterday at the High Technology Crime Investigation Association virtual conference. It adresses the cyber security pressures on public bodies that arise out of access-to-information legislation, with a segment on how public sector incident response differs from incident response in the private sector

IPC/Ontario determines what’s reasonable to include in a drug prescription

On April 20th, the IPC/Ontario held that it is reasonable to include a patient’s first and last name, address, telephone number and date of birth on an Ontario drug prescription.

First name, last name, address and telephone number can be included as primary identifiers, with the telephone number element also enabling communication. The IPC accepted that date of birth can also be included because it is an immutable identifier (unlike address and phone number) and also contributes the prevention of dosing errors (because dosage can depend on age).

The IPC also held that OHIP number can be included on prescriptions for controlled substances because it is required by section 5 of Ontario Regulation 381/11.

Women’s College Hospital (Re), 2020 CanLII 31115 (ON IPC).

Ont CA – reasonable expectation of privacy turns on potential for secondary use

The Court of Appeal for Ontario issued a judgement yesterday that highlights the potential for secondary use of collected data as a factor that weighs in favour of privacy protection.

The police swabbed the door handle of a car that was parked in public to test for cocaine residue. The Court found a reasonable expectation of privacy that rendered the search – which was done without judicial authorization – unlawful.

While holding that physical contact with the car was “a factor,” the Court de-emphasized the significance of physical contact with a chattel:

Too narrow a focus on whether there was a trespass to a chattel, and the extent of interference with use of that chattel, could obscure the privacy interests at stake, as here, where the trial judge focused on the fact that the taking of the swabs had no impact on the appellant’s use of the car and was not known to him.

Compare this to the United States Supreme Court finding in United States v Jones, in which a majority held that the trespass committed by police who install a GPS tracking device on a vehicle is the trigger to constitutional privacy protection.

The Court of Appeal for Ontario’s analysis rested more heavily on the potential for using the swab sample for purposes more intrusive than testing for cocaine residue:

These swabs presumably revealed whether the appellant had handled cocaine. I also agree with the observations in Wong, at para. 27, that privacy concerns are heightened because the swabs may also provide DNA samples for analysis by police, even if that is not why they were initially collected, or what they were used for. Patrick concerned police searches of a suspect’s curb-side garbage. Though the police were searching for evidence of drug offences, the potential for collection of DNA was also relevant to the privacy analysis: see para. 30. The court also expressed scepticism of the notion that privacy concerns are diminished because the search was targeted at contraband: see Patrick, at para. 32; see also A.M., at para. 73.

Search methodologies can be so targeted as to become defensible. The Supreme Court of Canada’s Tessling case, for example, suggests that capturing a heat signature emanating from a residence is unobtrusive because it reveals criminal activity in the house – an illegal grow op – and not much else. The majority in Tessling expressly said that a search should not be judged based on “theoretical” secondary uses. In this case, the potential for secondary use was real.

Hat tip to Fred Schumann of Stockwoods.

R. v. Wawrykiewycz, 2020 ONCA 269.