Arbitrator dismisses complaint that union misused employer’s confidential information

On June 9, Arbitrator Marcotte dismissed an employer grievance that alleged a breach of confidence by its union.

In preparing for a discipline grievance that related to service provided to a client of the employer, a union business agent contacted the client for information. The employer grieved, claiming both a violation of the collective agreement and PIPEDA. The collective agreement did not contain an express confidentiality clause. The employer relied on a number of other collective agreement provisions to support an “implied right” and ground arbitral jurisdiction, including a purpose clause that called for “orderly and harmonious relations.”

Arbitrator Marcotte held that the employer was not alleging the breach of a right granted by the collective agreement. He also held that PIPEDA does not apply.

Recall Canada and Teamsters, Local 938 (9 June 2014, Marcotte).

BCLRB affirms decision denying grievor anonymity

There has been some significant British Columbia litigation about whether the British Columbia Personal Information Protection Act gives a grievor a right to have his identity obscured in an arbitration award.

On May 29th the British Columbia Labour Relations Board affirmed a decision by arbitrator Stan Lanyon on the issue.

Thr Board held that PIPA does bind a labor arbitrator, but that labor arbitrators nonetheless retain a discretion in deciding whether to grant a right of anonymity based on the “authorized by law” exception to the consent rule.

The Board also affirmed Arbitrator Lanyon’s finding that the arbitration process is “not a purely private dispute resolution mechanism,” that there is therefore a public interest in open proceedings and that there is a particular public interest in publishing the names of individuals who commit employment offences.

Look for an appeal on this very principled and important issue.

Sunrise Poultry Processors Ltd v United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 1518, 2014 CanLII 27506 (BC LRB).

SCC alcohol testing decision invites peace in the valley by giving a boost to arbitral precedent

The Supreme Court of Canada’s June 14th decision in Irving Oil represents a remarkable elevation of arbitral precedent to near binding law, contributing clarity on an issue that has been heavily litigated by employers and unions for years.

The ratio, at paragraph 31, is that an employer with a safety-sensitive workplace needs proof of “enhanced safety risks” (such as a workplace substance abuse problem) to implement universal random substance testing. Although the judgment was split, both majority and minority agree that this is the evidentiary burden endorsed in “remarkably consistent arbitral jurisprudence.”

The Supreme Court of Canada wanted to deliver “peace in the valley” without causing too much upset in its established deference-favouring principles of judicial review.

Upset is exactly what the Court of Appeal of New Brunswick had created by issuing an unprecedented standard of review decision in its handling of the case. The lower court applied the correctness standard of review because labour arbitrators had not been able to reach a consensus. Justice Robertson said:

In the present case, it is evident that the arbitral jurisprudence is not consistent when it comes to providing an answer to the central question raised on this appeal. Hence, it falls on this Court to provide a definitive answer so far as New Brunswick is concerned.

In response, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the reasonableness standard applies to the interpretation of a collective agreement based on its established jurisprudence. It did not mention Justice Robertson’s novel approach to addressing an inconsistency in arbitral jurisprudence nor did it explain how it reached the opposite conclusion about the existence of arbitral consensus. Did it find the jurisprudence to be consistent as step one in its aim to promote clarity in the law?

Step two involves the Court’s treatment of arbitral precedent in assessing the reasonableness of Arbitrator Veniot’s decision. The Court unanimously held that the reasonableness of a labour arbitrator’s decision will be judged in light of established arbitral consensus.The majority felt that Arbitrator Veniot’s decision was consistent with the consensus, which supported its reasonableness. The minority felt that Arbitrator Veniot’s decision was inconsistent with the consensus, an error given he did not provide a rationale for his departure: “In the absence of a reasonable explanation for its novel test, the board must be taken as having misapplied the existing test, which in the circumstances of this case rendered its decision unreasonable.” This treatment of arbitral precedent as so central is novel and significant, though both the majority and minority specified that precedent was particularly important “in this case,” presumably given the deemed “remarkably consistent arbitral jurisprudence.”

Arbitrators are technically free to reason their way around the ratio of Irving Oil, but why would they? For practical purposes, the Court has delivered near binding precedent.

Of course, the non-unionized employees are much more vulnerable, many protected only by anti-discrimination legislation and a theory for finding discrimination espoused in the Court of Appeal for Ontario’s Entrop decision that is becoming less and less consistent with the SCC-defined meaning of discrimination. In light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s gymnastics in Irving Oil, is there any doubt that the courts will find a path, however tortured, that leaves non-union employees with the same protection?

Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 30 v Irving Pulp & Paper, Ltd, 2013 SCC 34 (CanLII).

Case Report – Publication of teaching evaluation data lawful

Arbitrator Brent held that the University of Windsor did not violate its faculty collective agreement or the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by publishing teaching evaluation scores on a secure network for access by students and other members of the university community.

She made three findings. First, she held that the change in practice did not breach a frozen practices provision in the collective agreement because the publication condition (freedom from publication, as was argued) was not fundamental to the employment relationship. Second, she held that the express collective agreement restriction on disclosure of faculty personal information did not apply because the information disclosed was not “personal information” under the collective agreement. In reaching this finding, she relied on permissive collective agreement language that referred to the use of teacher evaluation data to construe the term “personal information.” Finally, she held that FIPPA did not apply based on its employment-related records exclusion and the fact that the data was used in the University’s promotion, tenure and renewal process. In rejecting the Association’s argument that student use of the data brought the records under the auspices of the Act, she said:

To argue that it ceases to become a “labour relations” or “employment-related” matter once it is made available to the students would in my view have the effect of excluding SET from FIPPA when it is used for employment related purposes but then including it when it is used to provide information to students. Such a result would be contrary to the Court of Appeal’s decision that once it is determined that FIPPA does not apply to certain material, then that material is exempt from FIPPA for ever.

University of Windsor and University of Windsor Faculty Association (Re) (19 February 2007, Brent).