Lawyer’s communications with witnesses to harassment privileged, privileged waived

4 Mar

In late June of last year, Arbitrator Moore held that communications between a lawyer retained to investigate a harassment complaint and various bargaining unit members were subject to solicitor-client privilege, but that the employer waived privilege by relying on the investigator’s conclusions in its discipline letter.

The employer used a very strong retainer letter that clearly established the investigator’s mandate was to gather facts and evidence for the purpose of providing legal advice. The letter (admitted into evidence by the Union without challenge) was sufficient to establish that the sought-after communications were privileged. Significantly, Arbitrator Moore held that communications with unionized employees undertaken for the purpose of providing legal advice can still be privileged communications:

Thus, I have not been referred to any authority that supports the proposition that employees, by virtue of being unionized, are to be regarded as third parties.  While the legal rights of unionized employees are certainly impacted by the exclusive representational rights accorded to unions by statute, and may be further altered by collective agreement provisions, the employees are, in my view, still fundamentally employees of the employer.Accordingly, I do not find the fact that the employees are unionized to be a relevant consideration.  It does not alter my conclusion that they are not third parties.  The communications between the lawyer and the employees, therefore, took place within the relationship between the solicitor and the client and fall within the scope of the privilege.

Arbitrator Moore also rejected a very bold argument from the union that arbitrators should apply a distinct concept of solicitor-client privilege that provides “practical labour relations results for the participants.” Arbitrator Moore reasoned that the license given to labour arbitrators was not so broad “as to abrogate a principle as fundamental and protected as solicitor-client privilege.”

Although the employer established solicitor-client privilege and did not seek to rely on the investigator’s report at arbitration, Arbitrator Moore held that it waived privilege by relying on the investigator’s conclusion in its disciplinary letter. The letter read as follows:

The investigator concluded that your  conduct towards the complainant violated  Metro Vancouver’s Workplace Harassment Prevention Policy and directly contributed to a detrimental  work  environment  for  the  complainant  while he  was  employed  by  Metro Vancouver. Specifically, the investigator found that you were responsible for creating a harassing and discriminatory posting about the complainant and placing it in the Coquitlam guard house. In addition, the investigator found that you made discriminatory and harassing statements about the complainant in the work place. The investigator also concluded that you were not fully forthcoming with him during the investigation process. We accept the investigators [sic] findings and conclusions regarding your conduct. We conclude that your behaviour has been both discriminatory towards the complainant and has also violated Metro Vancouver’s expectations of appropriate employee behaviour.

As effective as the employer’s retainer letter was at establishing privilege, the employer’s discipline letter was a clear invitation to a waiver finding. This employer’s efforts nonetheless leaves other employers with a good road map for investigating sensitive internal matters under the protection of solicitor-client privilege. The retainer letter used by the employer is included in the award. It is a good model.

Vancouver (Regional District) v Greater Vancouver Regional District Employees’ Union, 2015 CanLII 87692 (BC LA).

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