Review of IPC exclusion decisions now (officially) subject to reasonableness review

A friend just brought a notable FIPPA judicial review from February 24th to my attention. In it, the Divisional Court affirmed an IPC order to disclose the full names of FRO employees in response to a request for personal information.

The IPC held that the employment-related records exclusion in FIPPA did not apply to certain records containing employee names – records of services provided to the requester. The Court reviewed this on the reasonableness standard, finding that pre-Alberta Teachers case law supporting a review on the correctness standard no longer applies. On the application of the exclusion, the Court rejected an argument that the records of service provided were employment-related in the context:

To qualify for the exclusion, the record must be about labour relations or employment-related matters. The dictionary definition of the word “about” requires that the record do more than have some connection to or some relationship with a labour relations matter. “About” means “on the subject of” or “concerning”: see Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed., 2004, s.v. “about”. This means that to qualify for the exclusion the subject matter of the record must be a labour relations or employment-related matter.

Adopting the Ministry’s broad interpretation of “about” would mean that a routine operational record or portion of a record connected with the core mandate of a government institution could be excluded from the scope of the Act because such a record could potentially be connected to an employment-related concern, is touched upon in a collective agreement, or could become the subject of a grievance. This interpretation would subvert the principle of openness and public accountability that the Act is designed to foster.

This should be read to be consistent with the Divisional Court’s earlier decision that there need only be “some connection” with excluded subject matter for the exclusion to apply: see Ministry of Attorney General and Toronto Star, 2010 ONSC 991 (CanLII). Records that have some connection (i.e. a partial connection) to excluded subject matter are arguably still excluded, but the connection must be real, not speculative and not driven by the context in which a request is made.

The Court also affirmed the IPC’s finding that full name information is not exempt under the “unjustified invasion of personal privacy” exemption.

Question. Why not argue that the information at issue – full names or identifying information – is not “personal information” to which the right of access to personal information applies? The right of access to personal information applies to information and not whole records. In the absence of a special context, the identity of employee/service provider names should not constitute the requester/service recipient’s personal information.

Ministry of Community and Social Services v Doe et al (2014), 120 O.R. (3d) 451.

Alberta court issues important e-FOI decisions – faculty e-mails not in custody or control

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench issued a pair of judgements about access to faculty e-mails on April 23rd, ultimately deciding that the Alberta OIPC erred in finding that faculty member e-mails relating to participation on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada committee were in the custody or control of the University of Alberta.

Here are the four points of significance.

First, the Court held that the standard of review for custody or control decisions is reasonableness based on the strong presumption established by the Supreme Court of Canada last December in Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v. Alberta Teachers’ Association. This is a change, albeit a predictable one in light of Alberta Teachers’ Association. Despite the outcome in this case, custody or control decisions will generally be harder to challenge on judicial review than in the past.

Second, the Court held that the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta did not have a right to notice of standing in the OPIC’s hearing as an affected party or as a matter of fairness. It held that the AASUA interest in the precedential effect of the OIPC’s finding did not give it an interest in the request under appeal sufficient to justify a right to notice and standing.

Third, the Court held that the OIPC erred in finding that the records at issue were under the university’s custody or control.

In part, the Court’s reasoning highlights the growing importance of assessing the purpose of access to information legislation in deciding custody or control issues. It held the OPIC erred by failing to recognize that the faculty member’s e-mails related to a grant funding process in which the university had no role. They therefore shed no light on the university’s own operation in furtherance of the statutory aims. Rather, the records at issue shed much more light on another public institution’s operations, something the Court said the OIPC also ought to have considered.

The Court’s reasoning also suggests that standard technical processes used in the management of business e-mail systems will not govern whether e-mails are in the custody or control of a public institution. It held that the OIPC erred by inferring too much from the routine backup of e-mails and the right to monitor. The Court said, “It was unreasonable to focus on the general computer use policy, rather than considering the particular records in question.”

Finally, the Court declined to address a bold argument by the AASUA that all records produced by faculty members in the course of participating in external committee work and in the context of their internal research and other academic work are not subject to a university’s custody or control. The Court said, “Academic freedom may be one relevant factor in considering whether a university has custody or control of records, but until the Commissioner considers that question in a hearing that raises the issue at first instance, this Court need not address it here.”

University of Alberta v. Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner), 2012 ABQB 247 (CanLII) (standard of review, custody or control).

Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta v University of Alberta, 2012 ABQB 248 (CanLII) (notice and standing).

NBCA Says Pre-Existing Alcohol Problem Not a Prerequisite to Random Alcohol Testing

Last Thursday the New Brunswick Court of Appeal issued a rather remarkable decision in which it held that employers who manage “inherently dangerous” workplaces do not require evidence of a pre-existing alcohol problem to justify random alcohol testing.

The decision is most remarkable for its approach. Specifically, Justice Robertson held that a great need for policy guidance, especially in light of conflicting arbitral jurisprudence, justified review on the correctness standard:

Certainly, the Supreme Court has yet to accord deference to an administrative tribunal with respect to questions of law umbilically tied to human rights issues: see Jones and de Villars, Principles of Administrative Law, 5th ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 2009) at 553. Similarly, the Supreme Court has held various privacy commissioners do not have greater expertise about the meaning of certain concepts found in their respective statutes which limit or define their authority: see Jones and De Villars at 553, note 223. Accepting that no analogy is perfect, I see no reason why this Court should depart from those precedents. Indeed, if one looks to the arbitral jurisprudence, one is struck by the reliance on judicial opinions touching on the matter. The overlap reflects the general importance of the issues in the law and of the need to promote consistency and, hence, certainty, in the jurisprudence. Finally, I am struck by the fact that there comes a point where administrative decision makers are unable to reach a consensus on a particular point of law, but the parties seek a solution which promotes certainty in the law, freed from the tenets of the deference doctrine. 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. This is why I am prepared to apply the review standard of correctness. But this is not to suggest that I am about to ignore the arbitral jurisprudence which has evolved over the last two decades. Let me explain.

Justice Robertson’s “let me explain” line leads to a full analysis of the cross-Canada arbitral jurisprudence in an attempt to derive a principle for the justification of random alcohol testing respectful of arbitral efforts. In the end, he says:

As matter of policy, this Court must decide whether an employer is under an obligation to demonstrate sufficient evidence of an alcohol problem in the workplace before adopting a policy requiring mandatory random alcohol testing. In my view, the balancing of interests approach which has developed in the arbitral jurisprudence and which is being applied in the context of mandatory random alcohol testing warrants approbation. Evidence of an existing alcohol problem in the workplace is unnecessary once the employer’s work environment is classified as inherently dangerous. Not only is the object and effect of such a testing policy to protect the safety interests of those workers whose performance may be impaired by alcohol, but also the safety interests of their co-workers and the greater public. Potential damage to the employer’s property and that of the public and the environment adds yet a further dimension to the problem and the justification for random testing. As is evident, the true question is whether the employer’s workplace falls within the category of inherently dangerous. It is to that issue I now turn.

On the facts, Justice Robertson held that Irving’s kraft mill met the “inherently dangerous” criterion, a finding made somewhat easy by the arbitration board’s finding that Irving’s workplace was “dangerous,” but not dangerous enough to justify random alcohol testing without evidence of a workplace substance abuse problem.

Syndicat canadien des communications, de l’énergie et du papier, section locale 30 c. Les Pâtes et Papier Irving, Limitée, 2011 NBCA 58 (CanLII).

Case Report – Court upholds arbitrator order that stops call centre from recording calls… with reservations

Today, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia upheld a labour arbitrator’s order that required the Halifax Regional Municipality to cease and desist from recording calls to its call centre for quality monitoring, coaching and dispute resolution purposes.

In resolving the employer’s application for judicial review, Wright J. displayed a remarkably honest application of the “reasonableness” standard of review by disagreeing with the arbitrator’s weighing of management versus employee interests but nonetheless upholding his decision as reasonable.

Though it did not affect the outcome of the application, Wright J.’s more legally significant finding was on whether the employee voice recordings at issue were protected as “personal information” under the applicable privacy legislation. He stressed that the recordings captured non-sensitive employee work product and, in the context, this feature of the recordings was more significant than anything personal that the characteristics of an employee’s voice might reveal (such as age or race).

It cannot be over emphasized that the recording of calls made to the call centre agents on the Primary Line is of a non-personal nature. The call centre agents answer inquires from the public about various municipal matters. There is no component of personal information in that. It is not recorded information about an identifiable individual within the meaning of s.461(f). Rather, the content of the calls, as earlier noted, is about such routine inquires as transit service times, tax bills, by-laws, parking information and municipal services. In my view, the question of whether voice recording in the fact situation at hand constitutes “personal information” cannot be decided irrespective of the content of those calls. Here, the content of those calls is undoubtedly of a non-personal nature made in the course of the performance of the job duties of these employees.

Halifax (Regional Municipality) v. Nova Scotia Union of Public and Private Employees, Local 13, 2009 NSSC 283.