Understanding the Employment-Related Records Exclusion

Here is a copy of the presentation I delivered yesterday at the at the PISCC’s 2020 Ontario Connections Conference. As I told the audience, I’m a confessed FOI nerd. The exclusion is such a unique, important and misunderstood part of our Ontario FOI law that it was good to dive deep on it while in good company.

ALSO, BLG is launching a new webinar series for the provincial public sector called “nuts and bolts.” The first webinar will run in late November, please sign up here, or if you can’t attend in November and want me to put you on our mailing list please DM me.

OPC issues significant findings in response to online reputation complaint

The IPC recently responded to a complaint by a dentist about the the RateMDs review site, at which several individuals purporting to be her patients had posted anonymous reviews. The OPC findings are significant favor the public’s right of expression over doctors’ interest in personal privacy.

The OPC first held that RateMDs did not need the complainant’s consent to publish the reviews because the reviews constituted so-called “mixed personal information” – a term used by the IPC/Ontario to refer to personal information that relates to more than one individual. The Federal Court of Appeal test from Pirrie calls for a very contextual balancing of interests in addressing access requests for such information. In this case, the OPC applied a similar approach to deny the complainant the ability to block the publication of others’ opinions about her. It said:

Giving effect to the Complainant’s lack of consent would mean the interests of the patients who are consenting to the publication of their reviews and ratings would not be respected, and the benefits to the public more broadly would be negated. We are therefore of the view, based on a balancing of interests of the Complainant with those of the reviewers and the public more generally, that this aspect of the complaint is not well-founded.

The OPC held that RateMDs’ accuracy and correction obligations under PIPEDA require it to correct ratings that are inaccurate, incomplete or out-of-date. However, it also acknowledged that challenging the inaccuracy of an anonymous review is difficult and held that that PIPEDA will “generally” prohibit review sites like RateMDs from disclosing the identity of anonymous reviewers.

Finally, OPC held, that RateMDs should discontinue a paid service that allowed doctors to hide up to three reviews “deemed to be suspicious.” While this finding is understandable, it is ironic that a privacy regulator has applied our commercial privacy statute to take away a potential privacy remedy. All in all, that is what this finding does: it makes clear that PIPEDA is not an effective remedy for challenging seemingly fair reviews posted on a bona fide review site. Those aggrieved must go to court and sue in defamation or (if they are up for a challenge) breach of privacy.

PIPEDA Report of Findings #2020-002, June 30, 2020.

CASL survives constitutional challenge, FCA gives some insight

Yesterday the Federal Court of Appeal held that Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation is intra vires Parliament and Charter-compliant. In doing so it opined on the scope of numerous CASL provisions, most-notably the so called “business-to-business  exclusion.”

CASL applies coast-to-coast-to-coast – passed under the federal trade and commerce power. It is known to be both strict and inelegantly drafted because it applies very broadly but carves out areas of activity piecemeal, though numerous exemptions and exclusions.

None of this caused the Court any problem. It rejected the appellant’s division of powers attack and its attack under sections 2(b), 11, 7 and 8 of the Charter. Ultimately the Court viewed CASL as addressing an important problem of national scope and focused enough to pass muster because its scope of application is tied to “commercial activity” (a concept with sufficient meaning) and because of its numerous exemptions and exclusions: “CASL thus establishes a complex legislative scheme that evinces a considerable degree of tailoring to meet its objectives.”

More practically, the Court affirmed a CRTC finding that e-mails sent by the appellant to market training courses employees of organizations did not fit within the Act’s business-to-business exclusion, which removes commercial electronic messages from all regulation if they are sent by an organization, “to an employee, representative, consultant or franchisee of another organization if the organizations have a relationship and the message concerns the activities of the organization to which the message is sent.”

Regarding the relationship requirement, the Court agreed with the CRTC that it will not be satisfied by mere proof a prior transaction with an employee of the organization to whom a message is sent. The Court used the term “partner organization” to characterize an organization that would qualify for exclusion. It also said that the requirement for exclusion is more demanding than the requirement for being in the type of business relationship that would only trigger deemed implied consent – i.e., an existing business relationship. The Court explained:

Finding an existing business relationship in the present case would permit the appellant to send CEMs to a person—an individual—who had paid the appellant for a course within the preceding two years. Finding a relationship for the purposes of the business-to-business exemption, on the other hand, would allow the appellant to send CEMs to not only the individual who took the course, or the individual who paid for the course, but to every other employee of the organization to which those individuals belong—and organizations can be very large indeed. The latter finding would expose a great many more people to the potentially harmful conduct that it is CASL’s raison d’être to regulate. This suggests, contrary to the appellant’s argument, that the evidentiary requirements for establishing a relationship for the purposes of the business-to-business exemption should in fact be more demanding than for an existing business relationship.

Although this will limit access to the exclusion, the Court did find that phrase “concerns the activities” does not limit organizations to sending e-mails that concern only the core business operations of the recipient organization.

I’ve addressed only the Court’s most significant interpretive finding. Yesterday’s decision also addresses (a) the purpose of CASL, (b) the meaning of “commercial electronic message”, (c) the relevance of one’s job title to establishing deemed implied consent and (d) the prescribed requirements for an unsubscribe mechanism.

3510395 Canada Inc. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2020 FCA 103.

Ont CA says bag search unlawful, order $500 in damages

On April 16th, the Court of Appeal for Ontario held that the Toronto Police breached sections 2(b), 8 and 9 of the Charter by enforcing a “condition of entry” to a public park because they were not properly authorized to establish the condition.

The City of Toronto had authorized the police to act as its agents “for the purpose of administering the Trespass to Property Act.” Acting under this authority, the police decided to search bags (and all other things in which weapons could be concealed) possessed by those attending a G20 protest at Allan Gardens. The appellant took issue with the legality of this “condition of entry.” The police restrained him when he refused to comply, searched his bag and confiscated a pair of swim goggles. You can see a video of the altercation here.

The Court of Appeal decision turned on text of the grant of authorization, which the Court held was too narrow given the Trespass to Property Act only provides property owners and occupiers with “a suite of enforcement powers” and not a power to create restrictions on access to property. It said, “The jurisprudence consistently takes a rigorous approach when interpreting the sources of legal authority relied upon by government to encroach upon the liberty of the subject.”

The Court ordered the police to pay $500 in damages. It said the appellant (who drew attention to his fate during the altercation and afterwards) did not establish any reputational or other personal loss. The Court also noted that the police acted in good faith with a view to the safety of the public.

Stewart v Toronto (Police Services Board), 2020 ONCA 255 (CanLII).

No privacy breach for publishing information about a provincial offences conviction

Late last year the Ontario Superior Court of Justice issued judgement in a hard-fought dispute between residential neighbours. After an 11-day small claims court trial (!) the Court allowed one neighbour’s privacy breach claim and dismissed the other’s.

The Court allowed a claim against the defendants for directing surveillance cameras and motion-activated floodlights at the plaintiffs’ property as part of a deliberate campaign of harassment. It awarded each plaintiff $8,000, noting evidence of “significant stress and irritation.” The Court also awarded each plaintiff $500 on account of their exposure to “obstructive parking.”

The successful plaintiffs tended to the high road, at one point returning the defendants’ stray dog in an act of neighbourliness. They did, however, publicly post a document that detailed a Provincial Offences Act conviction of one of the defendants. (They said did so to give their prying-eyed neighbours “something to look at.”) The Court dismissed a counterclaim based on this publication, explaining:

Convictions and sentences imposed by courts of law are events which occur in public and are publicly-available information.  The fact that some third party has posted such facts on the internet makes them all the more public.  I am unable to accept the defence submission, unsupported by authority, that for Mr. Cecchin to find and post this information constitutes an actionable invasion of privacy.  Such a conclusion would be inconsistent with the definition pronounced by Sharpe J.A. in Jones v. Tsige (2012), 2012 ONCA 32 (CanLII), 108 O.R. (3d) 241 (C.A.), at para. 70.  The conviction and sentence cannot be viewed as Mr. Bradbury’s “private affairs or concerns”.  Nor would a reasonable person regard the search for or publication of the outcome of legal proceedings as “highly offensive.”

In a similar vein, the Court dismissed a counter-claim that alleged the plaintiffs committed a privacy violation by writing a letter to other neighbours drawing their attention to the defendants’ non-compliance with municipal bylaws. It said that the claim was untenable as one that attacked, “an exercise of free speech, of local political action and participation in the municipal legal process.”

Cecchin v Lander, 2019 CanLII 131883 (ON SCSM).

Ont CA quashes decision to close police board meeting for failure to consider the Charter

On December 27th, the Court of Appeal for Ontario issued a significant decision about the openness of meetings conducted by the governors of public bodies.

The matter involved a decision to go in camera made by a delegate of the Thunder Bay Police Service so it could deal with a police disciplinary matter – to be precise, a decision to extend the time limit for serving a notice of disciplinary hearing on several police officers for their suspect handling of an indigenous man’s death. The delegate applied the statutory test for closing a meeting as set out in section 35(4) of the Police Services Act. He rejected an argument that the more strict Dagenais/Mentuck test applied, reasoning that he was not charged with conducting a judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding.

The Court of Appeal agreed that Dagenais/Mentuck did not apply. It nonetheless held that the delegate erred by not accounting for section 2(b) of the Charter, which it had recently held governs access to police board meetings in a case called Lagenfeld. Justice Sharpe said:

In my view, that statutory test and not the Dagenais/Mentuck test governed the exercise of his discretion. However, the s. 2(b) right recognized in Langenfeld has a direct bearing on the exercise of that discretion. Through no fault of his own, the decision maker did not consider Langenfeld. The “principle that proceedings be open to the public”, recognized by s. 35(4), is considerably fortified by the s. 2(b) Charter right recognized by Langenfeld in relation to police services board meetings.

Doré, at para. 56, explains that the administrative decision maker is “to ask how the Charter value at issue will best be protected in view of the statutory objectives” and that the core of this “proportionality exercise” will require the decision maker “to balance the severity of the interference of the Charter protection with the statutory objectives.” As Doré explains, at para. 57, this proportionality exercise “calls for integrating the spirit of [the Charter’s s. 1 reasonable limits scrutiny] into judicial review”.

The Court remitted the matter to the delegate for reconsideration, stressing various contextual factors to weigh in the balance.

The overlay of the Charter on top of statutory criteria for closing a meeting is significant. Also significantly, the Court read the Police Services Act to empower the Board to make confidentiality orders incidental to a decision about whether to close a meeting in order to achieve proportionality – a reading it said flowed from the ability to close a meeting “in part.”

The Court creates a new (and ambiguous) requirement for closing meetings that likely applies to a wide number of Ontario public bodies.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation v. Ferrier, 2019 ONCA 1025.

Transparency, open courts and administrative tribunals: implications of Toronto Star v AG Ontario

Here’s some commentary I submitted in support of my panel appearance on Wednesday at the above-named OBA conference.

It appears there are not too many fans of the Toronto Star decision among administrative tribunal practitioners, though the tribunals themselves seem to be more ambivalent. I’m among those who don’t like the policy implications of Toronto Star. For insight please read my commentary.

On Wednesday I spoke about the practical impact of practicing under truly presumptive, court-like openness in which no adjudicative decision (with due process rights) stands between a requester and a client’s filings. In short, it will invite the application of a new analysis prior to making any filing. What in here is confidential? Can I compromise – making my client’s case without it? At what cost? Is it better to seek a confidentiality order of some sort? At what cost? Does the media require notice of my motion? At what cost? Did I mention cost?

I encouraged tribunal staff in attendance to think about how critical a concern privacy has become and how individuals expect and are owed, at a minimum, due process. In my view requiring applications for access (made on notice) is a model for access that’s more consistent with the object of administrative justice – specialized, low cost, accessible justice.

Ontario Court says FOI statute fails in providing access to administrative tribunal records

Yesterday the Ontario Superior Court of Justice held that the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act violates section 2(b) of the Charter because it goes too far to protect the privacy of parties, witnesses and others in matters heard by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, Ontario Labour Relations Boards and other statutory tribunals.

The Toronto Star brought the Charter application. It argued that the access regime created by FIPPA is too restrictive and too slow to meet its Charter-based right of access to “adjudicative records” – records of things filed before tribunals like pleadings and exhibits as well as tribunal decisions. A number of Ontario tribunals process requests for adjudicative records formally under FIPPA while others provide access more informally. The Star argued that the informal process must be the norm.

Justice Morgan allowed the application and declared that FIPPA violates the Charter by imposing a presumption of non-disclosure of “personal information” in adjudicative records. It is a puzzling decision for two reasons.

First, there is virtually no discussion about whether the open courts principle ought to apply to administrative tribunals. The Court’s application of the open courts principle appears to be derived from a provision requiring openness in the Statutory Powers Procedure Act:

All parties acknowledge that administrative hearings governed by the Statutory Powers Procedure Act (“SPPA”) are required to be open to the public. In principle, therefore, it is uncontroversial that “[t]he ‘open court’ principle” – at least in some version – “is a cornerstone of accountability for decision-making tribunals and courts.”

One might argue that the Court elevates a statutory presumption (which ought to be read in harmony with FIPPA) into a constitutional right. One might also argue that there are policy imperatives for administrative justice that weigh against recognition, in respect of tribunals, of the same level of openness that applies to courts – expediency and ease of access, for example. These two imperatives in particular are likely to suffer if administrative tribunal records are treated similarly to court records.

Second, the Court’s decision rests on what it says is a flawed “presumption of non-disclosure” – one that makes personal information in adjudicative records presumptively inaccessible. According to the Court this presumption arises out of the framing of FIPPA’s section 21 “unjustified invasion of privacy exemption,” which states that personal information shall be withheld unless its disclosure would not constitute an “unjustified invasion of privacy.”

It is too strong to call this a presumption, particularly in light of section 53 of FIPPA, which states, “Where a head refuses access to a record or a part of a record, the burden of proof that the record or the part falls within one of the specified exemptions in this Act lies upon the head.” To the contrary, all records in an institution’s custody or control are presumptively accessible under FIPPA, with limitations on the right of access dictated to be “limited and specific” as stipulated FIPPA’s purpose provision.

It’s quite arguable that FIPPA grants a right of access subject to a balancing of interests that has been carefully calibrated by the legislature and ultimately governed by an expert tribunal – the Information Privacy Commissioner/Ontario. Justice Morgan did not hide his views about the IPC, stating “In terms of the expertise of the institution heads and, in particular, the IPC, it is fair to say that the jury is still out. ”

 Toronto Star v. AG Ontario, 2018 ONSC 2586.

Div Ct. quashes IPC decision for failure to identify PI under consideration

On December 18th, the Divisional Court quashed an IPC/Ontario order that affirmed a municipal institution’s decision to apply the public interest override in disclosing an internal investigation report. The Court held that the IPC erred by not identifying the personal information under consideration in its reasons:

[67]           The Commissioner is essentially asking this court to undertake the detailed analysis of the information in the Report described above, decide what portions of the Report fall within the s. 14 personal information exemption, and then assess the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s application of the s. 16 test based on that conclusion.  That is not the role of this court.  That complex analysis goes beyond supplementing the reasons.   It amounts to asking this court to review the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s decision based on our own assessment of what was exempted under s. 14 rather than based on what the Commissioner decided was exempted.

[68]           Given the acknowledged need to disclose only that portion of the exempted information that meets the s. 16 “clearly outweighs” balancing test, each piece of personal information that is exempted under s. 14 must form part of the analysis that the section requires.  In this case, we do not know what the Commissioner was weighing as against the public interest.  This is not a matter of considering what reasons could be offered in support of the decision; it is a matter of not knowing what his decision was on that complex issue, which is prerequisite to the application of s. 16.  This is especially important in regard to the application of s.16 because the public interest override, which is rarely used, can have a major impact on individuals whose personal information would normally be protected by a statutory exemption.

Barker v. Ontario (Information and Privacy Commissioner), 2017 ONSC 7564 (CanLII).

“Steep hill” to climb for defamation plaintiffs when suing on matters of public interest

On July 25th, the Ontario Superior Court of justice dismissed an action under a new provision of the Ontario Courts of Justice Act intended to dissuade persons from bringing “strategic lawsuits against public participation” – so called “SLAPP” suits.

The plaintiff is a company that operates a gravel pit. It sued a Stouffville teacher who made two postings to Facebook about a municipal approval that allowed an expansion of the company’s operation. The defendant made the posts without reading the engineering report the plaintiff had filed with the municipality or taking any other significant steps to inform herself of the issue. She said the defendant would profit significantly from the approval, the municipality would not, and the defendant “would potentially poison our children.” When the plaintiff demanded an apology, the defendant apologized. The plaintiff sued anyway.

The plaintiff agreed that the defendant’s expression related to a matter of public interest – leaving the plaintiff to establish that its proceeding had “substantial merit,” that the defendant had “no valid defence” and that it had suffered (or was likely to suffer) “sufficiently serious harm” in order to survive dismissal under the CJA’s anti-SLAPP provision. The Court held that none of these criteria were met, dismissed the action and awarded $7,500 in damages to the plaintiff (in part reflecting how the plaintiff conducted its proceeding and in part reflecting the defendant’s failure to adduce medical evidence in support of her damages claim).

The judgement means that the burden on a party seeking civil redress for statements made about a matter of public interest is high. In this case, for example, it did not matter that the plaintiff took few steps to inform herself of the issue or used the “unfortunate” word “poison”; informed or not, the Court said the plaintiff had a right to enter the public forum and use emphatic language in doing so without the risk of being sued. Justice Lederer explained:

I am inclined to the view that the legislature did more than just “tilt the balance somewhat”. Rather the legislature created a steep hill for the plaintiff to climb before an action like this one is to be permitted to proceed. The legislation directs that we place substantial value on the freedom of expression over defamation in the public sphere. To put it simply, those who act in the public realm need to realize that not everybody will accept what they wish to do or agree with what they say and may make statements that go beyond what may seem, to the recipient, to be appropriate.

United Soils Management Ltd. v. Mohammed, 2017 ONSC 4450.