Is an act of reprisal in response to an unfounded human rights complaint grounds for an award of damages under the Ontario Human Rights Code? According to a recent decision from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, Morgan v. Herman Miller Canada Inc., 2013 HRTO 650 (CanLII), the answer is yes.
The case is interesting because it stands in stark contrast to decisions taken by the Ontario Labour Relations Board with respect to claims of reprisal following unsuccessful claims of workplace harassment. On this latter point I would encourage readers to review my post Workplace Harassment Complaints and Bill 168.
The Morgan Decision
The Morgan case concerned an application brought before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario by employee Aldeen Morgan. Mr. Morgan had taken the position that he was discriminated against by his employer, Herman Miller Canada Inc. on account of the fact that he was black man. Specifically, Mr. Morgan had claimed that he was made to perform tasks outside his job description, which he found demeaning, and that he was put on probation solely because he was a black man.
In her reasons for decision Human Rights Tribunal Adjudicator Geneviève Debané found that the Mr. Morgan had not established that the events complained of were evidence of any discriminatory or racist conduct on the part of the employer. Adjudicator Debané therefore dismissed those aspects of his claim.
However, although Adjudicator Debané made findings that the incidents complained of were not motivated by racism, the Tribunal still found that the company’s failure to appropriately respond to Mr. Morgan’s complaints was sufficient to result in an award of damages.
The Duty to Address and Respond
In reaching the decision that Mr. Morgan had been discriminated against, Adjudicator Debané made reference to the 2005 decision of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in Laskowskav. Marineland of Canada Inc., 2005 HRTO 30, which discusses the obligation of an employer to adequately address and respond to allegations of Code-related discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
Adjudicator Debané then went on to hold that an applicant need not prove that discrimination has occurred to benefit from the protection of section 8 of the Human Rights Code; the applicant must only have a genuinely held the belief that the respondents were infringing his Code rights. (See paragraph 87.)
Section 8 of the Ontario Human Rights Code provides that:
Every person has a right to claim and enforce his or her rights under this Act, to institute and participate in proceedings under this Act and to refuse to infringe a right of another person under this Act, without reprisal or threat of reprisal for so doing.
Based on that rule of law, Adjudicator Debané found that the decision to terminate Mr. Morgan’s employment was made as a reprisal because he had claimed his Code rights by raising issues of harassment and discrimination in his workplace. Adjudicator Debané also found that the employer failed to adequately address, or take any steps in response to, Mr. Morgan’s, albeit unfounded, allegations of discrimination and harassment. On this second point Adjudicator Debané wrote that:
Instead of dealing with the applicant’s allegations in an appropriate manner, the company chose to terminate the applicant’s employment. I note that the termination letter itself relies on the fact that the applicant was “profoundly unhappy”. I find that this unhappiness was a direct result of the fact that he perceived that he was being treated in a discriminatory manner because of his colour. Although reprisal need only be one factor in the decision to terminate the applicant in order to find that the applicant was terminated contrary to his right to be free from reprisal under the Code, in my view the reasons in the respondent’s termination letter were otherwise pre-textual. (Para. 108)
In the result Mr. Morgan was awarded lost wages for a period of 14 months; based on Mr. Morgan’s salary, the same was worth $55,799.70.
Adjudicator Debané also found that Herman Miller’s failure to address the applicant’s workplace issues and ultimate termination from employment had a significant impact on Mr. Morgan. She therefore awarded him $15,000 as damages for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.
Finally Adjudicator Debané directed the employer to retain an expert in human rights to review its human rights policies and to train all of its current employees holding the rank of manager or higher and those employed in human resources who perform work in Ontario with respect to the revised human rights policy, the Code and how to respond to allegations of harassment and discrimination.
In my earlier post considering the issue of Bill 168 and claims of reprisal under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Workplace Harassment Complaints and Bill 168, I looked at the 2011 decision of the Ontario Labour Relations Board in Conforti v Investia Financial Services Inc, 2011 CanLII 60897 (ON LRB). In that case the Labour Board held that:
If an individual complains under an employer's workplace harassment policy and doesn't like the way the employer handled the investigation (i.e. it didn't interview anyone), and then that person complains to the employer about its poor investigation and is fired, the Board appears not to have the authority under section 50 to deal with that situation. The discharge is not a reprisal as defined under section 50, because the [Occupational Health and Safety] Act does not dictate how an employer will actually investigate a harassment complaint and protect a worker who complains about that practical task not being performed properly. The Act just does not give us the authority to deal with this situation. (Para. 17) [Emphasis my own.]
In my opinion the decision in Morgan is the polar opposite of the decision in Conforti. In both cases complaints of harassment and prohibited behaviour were made, the adjudicative body found that the complaints were unwarranted, and partially as a result of the complaint the complaining employee was fired.
The difference between the two cases is that because Mr. Morgan tried to assert his rights pursuant to the Ontario Human Rights Code his termination was deemed a reprisal, but because Mr. Conforti tried to assert his rights pursuant to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act his termination was not.
While I appreciate that the decisions were decided pursuant to different laws, clearly there is an inconsistency here.
I invite readers to provide their comments below as to which of the two approaches to the situation they prefer. Personally, from the perspective of protecting and enforcing employee rights, the Human Rights approach is the more compelling of the two.
Takeaways for Employees
The takeaway for employees is that if you feel that you are being discriminated against because you are different, and that difference is one of those protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code, then you should inform your employer about those concerns without the fear of reprisal. For those looking for assistance with asserting their rights, the employment lawyers at Ottawa’s Kelly Santini LLP would be happy to be of service to you.
Takeaways for Employers
The takeaway for employers is that there is a positive obligation to investigate and address all complaints of harassment. Even if the allegations are unfounded, the obligation to investigate and address persists. And, as the Morgan decision demonstrates, where an employer fails to appropriately address those concerns penalties can and will follow.
If you are an employer in Eastern Ontario, and if one of your employees has made a complaint of harassment or unfair treatment, it would be prudent to seek professional legal advice. The employment lawyers at Ottawa’s Kelly Santini LLP have extensive experience providing advice to both employers and employees and would be happy to be of service to your business.
As always, everyone’s situation is different. The above is not intended to be legal advice for any particular situation and it is always prudent to seek professional legal advice before taking any decisions on one’s own case.
Sean Bawden, publisher of the law blog for the suddenly unemployed, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 613.238.6321.
Sean P. Bawden is an Ottawa, Ontario employment lawyer and wrongful dismissal lawyer practicing with Kelly Santini LLP, and part-time professor at Algonquin College teaching Trial Advocacy for Paralegals. He is a trustee of the County of Carleton Law Association for 2013.