Fed CA orders removal of witness names in administrative tribunal decision

On September 30th, the Federal Court of Appeal held that the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board ought not to have referred to witnesses by name in a disciplinary decision about a suspension for “inappropriate acts involving a number of young female subordinate employees.”

This was a second time the matter of the witnesses’ anonymity came before the Court.  In 2017, it had held that the Board’s decision to publish witness names was unreasonable and directed the Board to re-weigh the interests at stake.

The Board again declined to refer to witnesses by initials, seemingly put off by the employer’s pre-hearing “promise” to the witnesses that their identities would be protected from publication. What the employer said to the witnesses, the Court held, was not right inquiry. For that and other reasons, it quashed the Board’s second decision as unreasonable and (extraordinarily) substituted its own judgement.

Here are two points of significance:

  • the Court suggested that the (strict) Dagenais/Mentuck test applied by courts is the test to be applied by administrative tribunals like the Board; and
  • the Court recognized the public interest in encouraging the reporting of inappropriate sexual behavior by protecting the anonymity of witness, comparing the interest to the interest in encouraging the reporting of sexual assaults.

Canada (Attorney General) v. Philps, 2019 FCA 240 (CanLII).

Arbitrator orders $3,000 in privacy damages

On April 27th, Arbitrator Knopf ordered that $3,000 in damages be paid to a grievor for breach of privacy and harassment because:

  • the grievor’s personnel file contained an inexplicable notation that the grievor advised his supervisor that he injured his penis while cooking nude at home; and
  • the employer contacted the grievor’s doctor to confirm the doctor’s signature without justification and without consent.

Ms. Knopf said that these claims were “serious enough to warrant damages, buy they were not profoundly damaging to [the grievor’s] reputation or harmful to his privacy, nor did they have a negative impact on his benefit claims, status in the workplace or reputation in general.”

York (Regional Municipality) v Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 905, 2017 CanLII 56454 (ON LA).

Arbitrator orders $25,000 in damages for privacy breach

Arbitrator Stout’s April 28th decision has received ample coverage, but I’d like this site to be a relatively complete repository of privacy damages awards. Mr. Stout ordered an employer to pay $25,000 in general damages after a supervisor disclosed an employee’s visual disability to three other employees after learning of the disability in a prior arbitration proceeding. The supervisor apologized orally and in writing, which presumably mitigated the breach. He did not testify, however, and Mr. Stout inferred that the disclosure was undertaken as retaliation for the outcome of the prior arbitration, a significant aggravating factor. The grievor also suffered distress that required him to undergo medical treatment and the employer “did very little” to remedy the breach in its response (e.g., discipline on the supervisor).

Canadian Pacific Railway Company v Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, 2016 CanLII 25247 (ON LA).

USB key treated as a private receptacle by labour tribunal – but why?

On March 29th the Grievance Settlement Board (Ontario) held that a government employer did not breach its collective agreement or the Charter by examining a USB key that it found in the workplace.

They key belonged to an employee who used it to store over 1000 files, some of which were work-related and allegedly confidential and sensitive. Remarkably, the employee also stored sensitive personal information on the key, including passport applications for his two children and a list of his login credentials and passwords. The key was not password protected and not marked in any way that would identify it as belonging to the employee.

The employee lost the key in the workplace. The employer found it. An HR employee inserted they key in her computer to read its contents. She identified the key as possibly belonging to the employee. She gave the key to the employee’s manager, who inserted it in his computer on several occasions. The manager identified that the key contained confidential and sensitive information belonging to the employer. The manager then ordered a forensic investigation. The investigation led to the discovery of a draft of an e-mail that disparaged the manager and had earlier been distributed from an anonymous e-mail account.

The GSB held that the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy – one so limited as not to be as “pronounced” as the expectation recognized in R v Cole. The GSB also held, however, that the employer acted with lawful authority and reasonably. The reasonableness analysis contains some helpful statements for employers, most notably the following statement on the examination of “mixed-use receptacles” (my words):

The Association argues that the search conducted by Mr. Tee was “speculative” and constituted “rummaging around” on the USB key. It asserts that if Mr. Tee had been interested in finding files which might contain government data, he would have or should have searched directories which appeared to be work related, such as EPS, TPAS or CR. I do not find this a persuasive argument. As noted in R. v. Vu, in discussing whether search warrants issued in relation to computers should set out detailed conditions under which the search might be carried out, such an approach does not reflect the reality of computers: see paras. 57 and 58. Given the ease with which files can be misfiled or hidden on a computer, it is difficult to predict where a file relevant to an inquiry will be found. It may be filed within a directory bearing a related name, but if the intention is in fact to hide the file it is unlikely that it will be. Further, the type of file, as identified by the filename extension, is not a guarantee of contents. A photograph, for example can be embedded in a Word document. Provided that the Employer had reasonable cause to view the contents of the USB key in the first place (as I have found there was in this case), an employee who uses the same key for both personal and work related purposes creates and thereby assumes the risk that some of their personal documents may be viewed in the course of an otherwise legitimate search by the employer for work related files or documents.

I learned about this case shortly before it was decided and remarked that it was quite bizarre. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would be so utterly irresponsible to store such sensitive information on a USB key. This is one reason why I’m critical of this decision, which treats this employee’s careless information handling practice as something worthy of protection. The other reason I’m critical of  this decision is that it suggests the expectation of privacy recognized in Cole is higher than contemplated by the Supreme Court of Canada – which remarked that Richard Cole’s expectation of privacy was not “entirely eliminated” by the operational realities of the workplace. Not all of our dealings with information demand privacy protection, and in my view we need to make the reasonable expectation of privacy threshold a real, meaningful threshold so management can exercise its rights without unwarranted scrutiny and litigation.

I also should say that it’s very bad to stick USB keys found lying around (even in the workplace) into work computers (or home computers), at least without being very careful about the malware risk. That’s another reason why USB keys are evil.

Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario (Bhattacharya) v Ontario (Government and Consumer Services), 2016 CanLII 17002 (ON GSB).

Criminal reference checks for current hospital employees ruled improper

In a decision from last May that just came to my attention, Arbitrator Stout ruled that a hospital’s policy that required all current employees to undertake vulnerable sector criminal record checks violated its nurses collective agreement. 

Although British Columbia legislation supports periodic checks on vulnerable sector employees, the hospital’s policy was first of its kind in the Ontario hospital sector. Ontario employer’s have had difficulty justifying such checks. Arbitrator Picher’s comment about the distinction between pre-employment and in-employment checks in City of Ottawa is both authoritative and restrictive. 

The person who presents himself or herself at the door of a business or other institution to be hired does so as a stranger. At that point the employer knows little or nothing about the person who is no more than a job applicant. In my view, the same cannot be said of an individual who has, for a significant period of time, been an employee under the supervision of management. The employment relationship presupposes a degree of ongoing, and arguably increasing, familiarity with the qualities and personality of the individual employee. The employer, through its managers and supervisors, is not without reasonable means to make an ongoing assessment of the fitness of the individual for continued employment, including such factors as his or her moral rectitude, to the extent that it can be determined from job performance, relationships with supervisors and other employees, and such other information as may incidentally come to the attention of the employer through the normal social exchanges that are common to most workplaces. On the whole, therefore, the extraordinary waiver of privacy which may be justified when a stranger is hired is substantially less compelling as applied to an employee with many months, or indeed many years, of service.

Mr. Picher did state that in-employment checks can be used for employees exercising “particularly sensitive functions.” 

In this case, Arbitrator Stout held that the employer had not proven a “current problem” or “real risk.” Arbitrator Stout was also significantly influenced by the structural problem with vulnerable sector checks – i.e. they return sensitive “non-conviction information” for which employers generally have no need.

Rouge Valley Health System v Ontario Nurses’ Association, 2015 CanLII 24422 (ON LA).

Arbitrator dismisses video surveillance grievance, makes principled statements

On November 12th, British Columbia labour arbitrator Stan Lanyon dismissed a policy grievance that challenged the implementation of a video surveillance system in an equipment production and maintenance plant.

Surveillance cases are driven by their facts, but Arbitrator Lanyon did dismiss a union argument that overt and covert surveillance are equally invasive: “covert surveillance is more a more egregious violation of privacy because it is capable of causing more distress, anguish and embarrassment.”

As significantly, he held that surveillance systems can be justified without evidence of “a past history of serious breaches of safety, or security issues.”

Finally, Arbitrator Lanyon recognized a difference between using cameras for disciplinary (or supervisory) purposes and using video surveillance footage in the investigation of incidents. This distinction is not clearly drawn in some case law (and employer policies), but is important.

Kadant Carmanah Design v International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, District 250, 2015 CanLII 79278 (BC LA).

Arbitrator issues helpful video surveillance award

Arbitrator Paula Knopf’s May 19th video surveillance decision is helpful to management on two points.

First, she validates the management need to investigate wrongdoing rather than immediately confront a suspected wrongdoer: “if the suspected employees had been confronted with the Employer’s suspicions in late April or May as the Union suggested, while that might have had an immediate, albeit temporary, deterrent effect, that would have prevented any real hope of discovering the true extent of the problem.”

Second, Arbitrator Knopf analyzed whether inadmissibility was an appropriate remedy for the employer’s breach (rather than ruling the evidence to be inadmissible as an automatic consequence of the breach).

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board v Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, District 25, 2015 CanLII 27389 (ON LA).

Ontario arbitration award addresses remedy for privacy violation

On February 24th the Grievance Settlement Board (Ontario) held that an employer should provide a grievor with three days’ paid vacation as a remedy for the consequences of an (admitted) security breach. The breach apparently allowed other employees to read incident reports involving the grievor, who alleged this caused him psychological distress. The GSB made its finding after conducting an informal med-arb process.

Ontario Public Service Employees Union (Grievor) v Ontario (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), 2015 CanLII 14198 (ON GSB).

Arbitrator upholds sniffer dog search grievance

On January 5th, Arbitrator Norman of Saskatchewan held that an employer breached its collective agreement by periodically deploying drug detection dogs to screen people entering its mine.

Arbitrator Norman held that the process intruded on a reasonable expectation of privacy based on evidence that the dogs would likely identify off-duty drug use. Though Arbitrator Norman characterized the search invited by a dog sniff as minimally intrusive (and less intrusive than the sampling of bodily substances), he nonetheless held that the employer’s safety-related process was unreasonable. He drew heavily from the Supreme Court of Canada’s Irving Pulp and Paper decision, stating:

The prior threshold stage in the justificatory argument limiting rights under the Charter sets the bar very high; calling for proof of a pressing and substantial objective demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society, for the challenged measure. Under ‘Charter values’ analysis, I take the threshold bar to have been set by Irving as “… evidence of enhanced safety risks, such as evidence of a general problem with substance abuse in the workplace.”

While many might agree with the outcome, this reasoning is questionable. The resolution of privacy issues call for a highly contextual balancing of interests. Irving speaks to a particular balance that relates to universal random drug and alcohol testing, a process Arbitrator Norman reasons is relatively intrusive; Irving establishes no “bar” to meet in implementing other safety measures in the workplace whether or not they are related to drug and alcohol use. Moreover, the reference above to the Oakes test is flawed; under a Charter analysis (if such analysis is necessary), the question of whether a search is an “unreasonable search” is distinct from the question of justification under section 1 and Oakes.

USW, Local 7552 and Agrium Vanscoy Potash Operations (5 January 2015, Norman).

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

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).