Arbitrator awards privacy damages for implying an employee suffered from mental distress

31 Dec

On December 4th, Arbitrator Andrew Sims ordered the Edmonton Police Service to pay a grievor $5,000 in damages for breach of privacy.

The case arises out of the Service’s handling of an intense interpersonal conflict between the grievor, a police detective, and his staff sergeant. The conflict led to a formal review in which the reviewing investigator recommended the grievor’s transfer to a new unit due to interpersonal problems, the responsibility for which was borne by the grievor and others. Before the Service addressed the recommendation, however, the grievor and his staff sergeant had an altercation.

The altercation invited an immediate decision to pursue the recommended transfer. Although the formal review had raised no concerns about the grievor’s mental health, when superintendent met with the grievor to advise him of the transfer she became concerned about his mental health on account of his reaction.

The superintendent raised the need for a psychological assessment, which the grievor undertook grudgingly but voluntarily. While this assessment was pending the superintendent met with the department and implied that the grievor was mentally unwell, in essence conveying the same opinion that was the basis for the pending assessment. In the end, a psychologist determined the grievor was “psychologically intact and functional.”

Based on the following analysis, Arbitrator Sims ordered the Service to pay $5,000 in damages:

Had the Employer described to a work group a physician’s diagnosis of a co-worker, that it had obtained in its role as employer, disclosure would clearly be a breach of the employee’s right to privacy of their personal medical information.  To anticipate a diagnosis, based only on personal observations, however genuine the concerns,and to discuss that in public, is just as serious a breach of privacy.  Arrangements were underway to get the grievor assessed.  Implying anything as to his state of health pending that assessment was inappropriate and unnecessary. The decision was made to transfer the grievor based on the problems he was having with his Staff Sergeant and the Unit Review.  This was decided before the health concerns arose from the interview.  Given that, there was really no need to go into whether the grievor had health issues at all. The emphasis on the grievors “H.R. issues” had the effect of adding undue emphasis to the suggestion that the broader issues in the unit, which were serious in themselves, were due to the grievor’s health issues.  That too was unjustified given the more balanced assessment in the unit review itself.  The grievor’s reputation amongst his peers, his need and ability to interact with them in future, and his sense of employment security were all impacted by the excessive commentary during this meeting.  While I accept that the comments were made out of genuine (although to a significant degree unfounded) concern, they amounted to a breach of privacy and caused harm to the grievor’s privacy interests. Police officers are particularly dependent upon their reputation amongst their peers.  Any suggestion of mental problems or unreliability can seriously hurt their working relationships and their careers.  I find these breaches of privacy sufficiently serious to justify financial compensation which, based on a review of the authorities discussed above, I award at $5,000.

Edmonton Police Service v Edmonton Police Association, 2014 CanLII 73072 (AB GAA).

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