Privacy violation arises out of failure to notify of FOI request

On September 21st, the Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario held that a municipality breached the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by failing to notify an affected person of an FOI request.

The complainant discovered that the municipality had released e-mails he had sent to councilors about a planning matter in responding to FOI requests and without providing notice. MFIPPA requires notification of a request for records containing personal information if the head has “reason to believe” their release “might constitute an unjustified invasion of personal privacy.”

The IPC held that the municipality had not met this requirement. It reasoned:

As indicated above, the County disclosed the complainant’s name, address and views and opinions about Hastings Drive without notifying him pursuant to section 21(1)(b). Given the nature of the complainant’s personal information at issue, in my view, the disclosure of at least some of this information might have constituted an unjustified invasion of his personal privacy.

In my view, the complainant should have been notified and given an opportunity to make representations as to why the Emails should not have been disclosed. As noted in Investigation Report MC-000019-1, except in the clearest of cases, fairness requires that the person with the greatest interest in the information, that is, the complainant, be given a chance to be heard. In this matter, he was not given that opportunity.

The complainant had sent his e-mails to politicians about a matter of apparent public interest. The standard for notification is low, but the notice requirement here was at least debatable.

Unfortunately, the IPC does not address the balancing of interests contemplated by the unjustified invasion exemption. For notice to be required there must be “a reason to believe” – a reason based on a provisional application of the unjustified invasion exemption. “Clearest of cases” is not the legal test, and it is wrong to notify simply because “at least some” information responsive to a request is bound to trigger the notification requirement.

This is a mild warning to institutions. There is a statutory immunity that offers some protection from civil claims for failure to notify, but the IPC has shown itself to be strict.

PRIVACY COMPLAINT MC17-35, 2020 CanLII 72822 (ON IPC).

Court affirms IPC decision on doctor payments

On June 30th, the Divisional Court affirmed an Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario decision that the amounts billed to OHIP by top billing doctors did not constitute the doctors’ personal information.

The Court’s decision is a standard of review decision – i.e., one that accepts the IPC’s decision as reasonable. Notably, the Court was influenced by an argument made by the doctors that (pre-expense) billing amounts do not fairly represent personal income yet could be misconstrued as such by the public. The answer to such arguments is an easy one for most FOI adjudicators and courts: provide an explanation to the public if you think you’ll be misunderstood. The Court didn’t say that in this case, but noted that the doctors’ argument was supportive of the IPC decision that their billing amounts were not revealing enough to be personal information.

Otherwise, the Court made short work of the doctors’ attempts to impugn the IPC’s reasoning and an argument that the IPC procedure gave rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias.

Ontario Medical Association v Ontario (Information and Privacy Commissioner), 2017 ONSC 4090 (CanLII).

Addressing the privacy interests of affected individuals

I presented today at the Canadian Institute’s program on advanced administrative law. My topic was about how to deal with the privacy interests of affected non-parties. Here are my slides, revised based on my evolving understanding of this (difficult) issue. My thesis as it stands: we need to develop a principled exception to the audi alteram partem rule that governs when affected non-parties get notice and right to be heard. Courts and admin law decision makers appear to be attracted to solution that rests on the involvement of an appropriate representative party, but the current solutions are not driven by any express principle.

Arbitrator gives notice to affected individuals after ordering their PI to be produced

On July 14th, Arbitrator Kuttner ordered an employer (and MFIPPA institution) to disclose retiree contact information to a union and to deliver a notice to retirees about his production decision.

MFIPPA does not apply to employment-related records nor, in general, does it give employees and retirees of MFIPPA institutions privacy rights. Arbitrator Kuttner seemed to accept this in finding that MFIPPA did not preclude him from making the requested order, though he also made a finding that the requested disclosure was permissible under MFIPPA as a “consistent purpose.”

More significant is how Arbitrator Kuttner dismissed the employer’s argument that the procedural rights of affected retirees must be respected in determining the production motion. He said:

The situation before me is far removed from that dealt with by the [Court of Appeal for Ontario’s decision] in Re Bradley. There are not here two groups of employees covered by the same collective agreement competing for benefits under its terms, with one group stripped of benefits previously accorded in favour of another group to which they are newly afforded. Rather a bargaining agent, bound to represent fairly before an employer a discrete group of retired employees whose common interests under a collective agreement are in jeopardy, seeks disclosure of their personal contact information held by the employer, so that it can fulfill its representational role. As discussed above, that role is one with common law underpinnings, now rooted in the LRA, and recognized by the parties to the Collective Agreement. Of note in PIPSC v. Canada (Revenue Agency) supra, where employee privacy rights were at issue, is the Supreme Court’s comment that “the usual practice” is not to give affected employees notice of such proceedings, and the same would hold here in the case of retirees.

Arbitrator Kuttner nonetheless considered it “appropriate” to advise the retirees of his production decision and ordered the employer to deliver the letter I’ve attached below.

CUPE, Local 27 and The Greater Essex County District School Board (14 July 2014, Kuttner).

Case Report – Case about filing “unofficial transcript” of administrative tribunal hearing to proceed at BCCA

On August 10th, the British Columbia Court of Appeal granted leave to appeal a decision that permitted a judicial review applicant to file a self-produced transcript of a British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal hearing.

The applicant first asked the Tribunal to produce an official transcript and was denied. It then took recordings and produced its own transcript with the Tribunal’s consent pursuant to a provision in the Tribunal rules that specifies that such a recording, “is not part of the official record of the tribunal’s proceedings.”

The applicant lost on the merits and brought an application for judicial review. It alleged that the Tribunal breached procedural fairness by declining to record the hearing itself and also raised bias and “unreasonable findings of fact not supported by the evidence” as grounds for review. The applicant filed its “unofficial transcript” and the respondent was unsuccessful on its motion to strike.

In granting leave to appeal, the Court said:

Whether this development accords with the complex framework of modern administrative law in British Columbia seems to be a question that should be fully argued and canvassed. If leave were to be denied and the judicial review were to proceed, the issue could become lost in the ‘factual matrix’ of the case and the human rights and labour law communities would be left in doubt on this important evidentiary point. As it is, the hearing of the substantive issue before the court below has been adjourned a this appeal could be heard without delay.

SELI Canada Inc. v. Construction and Specialized Workers’ Union, Local 1611, 2010 BCCA 371 (CanLII).

Fair Procedure and Students at Risk

I wrote a client bulletin with the above-noted title that was published today. Here’s a teaser:

This university and college sector bulletin highlights an important and easily overlooked consideration in managing students at risk: protection of the procedural rights of students who are required to participate in medical assessments.

And here’s a link.

Case Report – Divisional Court says reasons for ordering medical exam required

On June 3rd, the Divisional Court quashed a medical assessment order issued by the Ontario College of Nurses because the College did not provide the affected nurse with reasons for its order.

In accordance with the Health Professions Procedural Code, the College’s Executive Committee appointed a board of inquiry to assess the nurse’s capacity. The board of inquiry gave notice to the nurse of its intention to order her to submit to a medical examination (on the threat of suspension) because it had reasonable and probable grounds to believe she was incapacitated. The power to make this order is specified in the Code, as is the requirement to give notice.

The nurse made submissions through counsel, and included two medical opinions and statements from her colleagues that supported her capacity. Regardless, the board ordered an assessment and did not provide reasons for its order. The court award also says the College “refused” to provide the nurse with a record of its proceedings or file the record with the Court, though it did file an Affidavit in its response which attached all the material before it at the time it made its decision.

The Court quashed the order because the College breached the nurse’s right to procedural fairness. It considered that the privacy interest at stake weighed in favour of a high standard, and commented:

Individuals have a legal right to bodily integrity and medical privacy. The right is protected through privacy legislation and through an extensive body of case law dealing with circumstances under which an individual can be compelled to submit to medical examinations and other intrusions on bodily integrity.

The College submits Ms. Cotton had no reasonable legitimate expectation that the Board would give reasons for its decision. It states it has never been the practice at the College for a Board of Inquiry to provide reasons demonstrating reasonable and probable grounds to require a member to submit to a medical examination. We respectfully suggest that the College might wish to re-examine its practice where a medical examination is ordered.

The College further submits that a duty to give reasons is inconsistent with the role of the Board, which was performing a purely investigative function rather than an adjudicative one. We recognize that there may be functions of the Board that are investigative and which are not determinative of the rights of any party. However, an order requiring a person to undergo an invasive medical examination, subject to the penalty of suspension or revocation of licence for refusing to comply, is a determination of rights, even though it may be ordered for an investigative purpose. It is in this context that the duty to observe rules of procedural fairness, including the duty to provide reasons, arises.

Though the substantive basis for ordering a medical assessment is often litigated, judicial comment on the process of ordering an assessment is rare. The outcome in this decision is certainly driven by its specific factual context, but it nonetheless has some broader significance.

Cotton v. College of Nurses of Ontario, 2008 CanLII 26674 (ON S.C.J.).