Nov 15, 2021  By John Hyde

Labour Arbitrators Exclusive Jurisdiction Applies to Human Rights Complaints

The Supreme Court of Canada recently held that a labour arbitrator’s exclusive jurisdiction to resolve matters arising from the interpretation, application, and alleged violation of a collective agreement can also extend to human rights issues.

Overview of the Case

In Northern Regional Health Authority v Horrocks, the respondent was terminated from a unionized health care environment for failing to abstain from alcohol and participate in addiction treatment. In response, she filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission alleging that her former employer did not adequately accommodate her disability of alcohol dependency.

In this case, the Supreme Court of Canada had to determine whohad jurisdiction to resolve a dispute where the impugned conduct allegedly violated both the collective agreement and human rights legislation.

The Relationship Between Canadian Labour Relations Statutes, Collective Agreements & Statutory Tribunals

Canadian labour relations legislation generally requires collective agreements to contain provisions describing how disputes about the interpretation, application, and alleged violation of such agreements will be resolved.

Pursuant to Manitoba’s Labour Relations Act, every collective agreement must have a provision addressing the final settlement of all differences relating to matters arising from the agreement. In the case at hand, the collective agreement at play stipulated that the sole method of resolving disputes would be by grievance arbitration.

The Supreme Court of Canada has consistently held that when labour legislation outlines how workplace disputes will be settled, the decision-maker empowered to resolve those matters has the exclusive jurisdiction to do so. This individual is usually a labour arbitrator.

Statutory tribunals, such as human rights commissions, may also be empowered to resolve disputes within a labour arbitrator’s exclusive jurisdiction. However, for this to be the case, there must be legislation demonstrating an intention to provide the tribunal with concurrent jurisdiction to resolve the matter.

In this case, the Supreme Court determined that Manitoba’s Labour Relations Act demonstrated an intent to grant a labour arbitrator the exclusive jurisdiction to resolve workplace disputes arising from the collective agreement. The court also found that the Human Rights Code governing the province of Manitoba did not demonstrate any such intent to provide statutory tribunals with concurrent jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court Found that the Complaint Arose from the Collective Agreement

The Supreme Court then shifted its focus to an assessment of whether the respondent’s complaint arose from the interpretation, application, or alleged violation of the collective agreement.

In accordance with the collective agreement’s management rights clause, the health care employer was entitled to maintain quality patient care, as well as discipline, suspend, or discharge employees for just cause. However, the agreement also stated that the employer’s exercise of those rights was limited by prohibitions on discriminatory conduct.

Furthermore, the heart of the dispute related to an employer and employee entering into an abstinence agreement after the latter came to work under the influence of alcohol. When the employee breached that agreement, her employer subsequently terminated her employment as a means of protecting patients.

The court reasoned that the respondent’s complaint was essentially an allegation that her former employer exercised its management rights in an inappropriate way, thus violating the collective agreement. As a consequence, the court concluded that the claim was one which was properly within the scope of a labour arbitrator, and not the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

The Bottom Line for Employers & Employees

It is no secret that workplace disputes can be multi-faceted, both from a factual and a legal perspective. Indeed, an employer may find themselves embroiled in a legal proceeding with a former employee which touches upon various aspects of workplace law. For both employers and employees, the case discussed in this article demonstrates that the question of who has jurisdiction to resolve workplace disputes can add an additional layer of complexity.

In spite of this, the Supreme Court of Canada offers important guidance.

The starting point for determining whether a labour arbitrator has jurisdiction to resolve their workplace dispute will be in the labour relations legislation itself.

In the event that a labour arbitrator does have exclusive jurisdiction, the next important question relates to whether the dispute falls within that jurisdiction. While a labour arbitrator’s scope will be based upon the language found in the legislation, it will generally extend to all disputes connected with the interpretation, application, and alleged violation of the collective agreement. For this reason, employers and employees alike must understand that the courts will be mostly concerned with the facts of the case, not how the matter could be legally characterized.

For help with disputes arising from both unionized and non-unionized environments, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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