Ont CA addresses privilege in communicating a sex assault allegation

On July 20th, the Court of Appeal for Ontario allowed an appeal of a civil sexual assault finding and, at the same, time awarded defamation damages to the party alleged to have committed the assault.

The matter dealt with assault and sexual assault claims brought by a sister against her older brother. She alleged the assaults occurred many years ago, the action being commenced based on “recovered memory.” Before the sister commenced her claim, she came out with the allegations in an e-mail to her brother, his wife and children, her two sisters and their families, her daughters and a woman she had been friends with in high school. She then sent similar communications to the same group as well as to her own lawyer and a lawyer involved in the administration of her mother’s estate.

The Court held that communication to the family members and lawyers was subject to qualified privilege but communication to the friend was not. The privilege in communicating with the family members was rooted in the sister’s need to “prevent future abuse or seek out emotional support” and the recipient’s reciprocal interest in deciding whether to take “protective action.” The privilege in communicating with the lawyers appears to be rooted in the nature of their retainers. Regarding the friend, the Court said:

However, there was no duty or interest on the part of the respondent’s former high school friend to receive the respondent’s communications. The respondent admitted that their friendship did not last after high school had ended and that they only briefly reconnected after the death of the respondent’s mother.  She did not testify as to her reason for copying the friend on the defamatory emails. There was no evidence that she asked her friend for assistance or advice, or that the friend ever responded to her communications. In these circumstances, there was no legitimate interest to be protected by the statements; as a result, they did not merit protection under the auspices of qualified privilege:  R.T.C. Engineering, at para. 15; Milgaard v. Mitchell (1996), 1996 CanLII 6950 (SK QB), 151 Sask. R. 100 (Q.B.), at para. 36.

Assault and sexual assault survivors can describe their allegations in seeking assistance and pursuing complaints, but may be liable for communicating their allegations too broadly. This finding gives fairly permissive scope to the (protective) qualified privilege doctrine, but also illustrates that its protection is has limits.

The Court also made a finding about the use of opinion evidence for the purpose of assessing credibility. This use of evidence is impermissible as “oath helping” and, in this case, rendered the trial judge’s sexual assault finding erroneous.

Whitfield v Whitfield, 2016 ONCA 581 (CanLII).

Union defames hospital administrator by publishing grievance, no privilege

On March 1st the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal held that a union and its representatives defamed the director of a teaching hospital by publishing a grievance that alleged he became “an active part of the harassment himself” by his handling of a harassment complaint against others.

The Court accepted that a publication by a union made for the purpose of “fair representation” (including for the purpose of locating witnesses for a pending arbitration) might attract qualified privilege, but held that the union went too far in the circumstances “having regard for the manner of communication, the wording of the communications, their timing and to whom they were given.” In particular, the Court held that the union could not satisfy the “reciprocity of interests” element of the qualified privilege defence because it published the grievance on the open internet. It explained:

The trial judge did address the question of publishing in relation to the internet (at para. 78), but he dismissed this aspect of the complaint by finding in effect that the use of the internet is a fact of life. As Brown on Defamation states “[t]he use of an internet website for the circulation of information to the union membership may be appropriate and privileged but only if reasonable steps are taken to restrict access to the website by the public generally or to those not interested in the information” (at 13.6(3)(d)(ii)(C), vol. 4). The internet is not a tool that can be used to expand qualified privilege so as to justify the broad publication of a defamatory statement, but rather it exacerbates the libel. In this case, it is common ground that the Union’s website was open to the public on the internet, without any access code protections or other privacy protections. Anyone with internet access could gain access to it. It is irrelevant, in my view, that Dr. Rubin did not present any evidence to the Court to prove that anyone did in fact search the internet to find the communication.

Also notably, the Court awarded $100,000 in general damages, which the court characterized as just shy of an amount that might be awarded for “extreme and egregious conduct.” It declined to award aggravated or punitive damages.

Rubin v Ross, 2013 SKCA 21 (CanLII).

Ontario court stresses that law tolerates rough political debate

On December 21st, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ordered a retrial of a successful defamation action in a case that nicely illustrates the heavy burden on a party seeking to sue another for a defamatory publication that is made on an occasion of qualified privilege.

The defendant was a municipal councillor who responded to an e-mail sent by a community activist to council members about a matter of public interest. The defendant’s response stated that the plaintiff was “a destructive mean spirited liar that does not deserve the time of day.”

The appeal court held that the trial judge erred by applying the wrong legal test for qualified privilege. In essence, it explained, the trial judge relied upon the malice inherent in uttering defamatory words to conclude that qualified privilege did not arise instead of recognizing the occasion of privilege and properly assessing whether the plaintiff had proven “express malice.” To illustrate, the appeal court noted that:

  • the trial judge held that the defendant made his publication negligently, but did not find that he spoke “dishonestly” or “with knowing disregard for the truth” as required by to rebut the presumption of honest belief; and
  • the trial judge held that the defendant made his publication “to re-enforce his own political goals and to discredit his opponents, and in particular, their spokesman [the plaintiff],” which signalled an intent too valid to warrant a finding of malice.

Although the appeal court acknowledged these findings, it held that it could not render a final judgment because the factual findings at trial did not address the proper tests. It ordered a new trial on the question of malice alone.

Whitehead v Sarachman, 2012 ONSC 6641 (CanLII).

Case Report – Employer liable to former employee in defamation

This is a quick summary of a July 20th British Columbia Court of Appeal defamation decision with illustrative value. The Court held an employer to be liable for nominal damages in defamation because a manager ticked an “inadequate performance” box on a human resources exit form without justification. The Court accepted that the act of completing and sending the form was subject to qualified privilege, but held that the employer exceeded its privilege because the manager e-mailed the form to a person who did not have a proven duty to receive it (as a member of human resources). It awarded the plaintiff $1,000.

Dawydiuk v. Insurance Corporation of British Columbia,2010 BCCA 353.

Case Report – Alberta Court of Appeal case discusses qualified privilege and threat reports

Chohan v. Cadsky was decided by the Alberta Court of Appeal on October 16th. The court found that three individuals acted within the scope of a qualified privilege in reporting expressions of concern about a colleague’s mental health and were therefore not liable for defaming the colleague. The Court summarized its finding in the following paragraph:

We dismiss the appeals against Dr. Ohlhauser, Dr. Baker, Dr. Gardener and Capital Health, as we are not persuaded that the trial judge made any reversible error in dismissing those actions. We will address the arguments separately, but commence with the following summary. Dr. Ohlhauser, Dr. Baker, and Dr. Gardener each testified that as a result of expressions of concern from others and/or their personal observations, each had an honest concern about the health of a colleague, and believed that, as a medical professional, he had a duty to either investigate this concern, or inform someone who was in a position to investigate. Each contacted the person he believed appropriate to provide assistance or investigate to ensure that there was no cause for concern. There is no evidence that any one of them contacted individuals who had no interest in knowing and no responsibility to receive the communication because of the position he held in Capital Health. Dr. Block, Dr. Hibbert and Dr. Gardener, the three persons to whom communications were made, each had a responsibility for ensuring that colleagues within their service did not have health issues that might affect patient care or their own well being. These three defendants were not engaged in idle gossip or general discussion in making these communications. In our view, the defence of qualified privilege was designed for exactly such a situation.

The principled aspect of this statement is not surprising, and the application of the qualified privilege defence will always turn on the specific facts. However, given that bona fide reports of potential threats should be encouraged as part of managing workplace (and campus) violence, the case is worth a note.

Chohan v. Cadsky, 2009 ABCA 334.