Human Rights Arbitrator Cannot Decide Workplace Discrimination Complaint, Supreme Court Says

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A labor arbitrator – not a human rights arbitrator – should consider a complaint from a unionized Manitoba nursing aide who claims she was discriminated against by her employer, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.

The highest court’s 6-1 Friday decision is likely to help clarify the appropriate venue for resolving specific workplace grievances across the country when it comes to which law applies.

Linda Horrocks, who worked for the Northern Regional Health Authority’s personal care home in Flin Flon, Man., Suffered from alcohol dependence, which the health authority recognized as a disability protected both by convention collective and the Manitoba Human Rights Code.

The health authority fired Ms Horrocks in 2012 for suspected alcohol consumption outside the workplace, contrary to an agreement that she refrained from consuming alcohol.

The health authority maintained the measures were necessary to protect patients, while Ms Horrocks said other options were available to meet the authority’s goal.

Ms. Horrocks then filed a complaint under the provincial human rights code, not a grievance under the collective agreement.

An arbitrator appointed under the rights code concluded that the health authority had violated the code’s discrimination provisions, given Ms Horrocks’ alcohol addiction disability.

A reviewing judge later ruled that the case fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of a labor arbitrator, but the case was subsequently taken to the provincial Court of Appeal.

The appeal court remitted the case to the reviewing judge to determine whether the adjudicator’s decision and the remedies she ordered were reasonable in law.

In its decision on Friday, the Supreme Court said that where labor law provides for the final settlement of disputes arising from a collective agreement, the jurisdiction of the decision maker empowered by that law – usually a labor arbitrator – is exclusive.

“Competing statutory tribunals can carve out a place for themselves in this sphere of exclusivity, but only when this legislative intention is clearly expressed,” Justice Russell Brown wrote for the majority.

“In its essential nature, Ms. Horrocks’ complaint alleges a violation of the collective agreement and therefore falls clearly within the mandate of the arbitrator.

Moreover, the provincial human rights code does not clearly express the intention of the legislature to grant competing power to the arbitrator over such disputes, he wrote.

As a result, the reviewing judge’s order setting aside the arbitrator’s decision should be restored, the High Court concluded.

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