Sunday, 16 November 2014

SCC Refuses to Hear Case from Unionized Employee who Sued for Breach of Confidence and Defamation

A recent decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, in which leave to appeal a decision from the Court of Appeal of Alberta, Beaulieu v University of Alberta, 2014 ABCA 137 (CanLII), was denied, further bolsters all predictions that Jian Ghomeshi’s case against the CBC is doomed to failure.

In its decision, the Court of Appeal of Alberta affirmed the legal principle that unionized employees must subject all disputes arising out of the employment situation to the mediation/arbitration process contained within the employee’s collective bargaining agreement – not the civil courts.


In Beaulieu v University of Alberta, the plaintiff, Dr. Norman C. Beaulieu, sued the defendants, including the Governors of the University of Alberta, alleging harassment, denial of access to research funding records, breach of a settlement agreement, breach of confidentiality, defamation, intentional infliction of mental suffering and a failure to stop disciplinary proceedings to accommodate his medical condition.

In a series of cross-motions, the University applied to strike the statement of claim on the basis that the court lacked jurisdiction because the dispute resolution procedures in the collective agreement provided the exclusive forum for the resolution of the dispute between the parties. Dr. Beaulieu applied for an interlocutory injunction prohibiting the respondents from proceeding with collective agreement proceedings against him until his physician gave medical clearance.

The judge who heard the motions struck the statement of claim and refused to grant the injunction. Dr. Bealieu appealed to the Court of Appeal of Alberta.

Decision of Chambers Judge (2013 ABQB 237)

Relying upon the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Weber v Ontario Hydro, 1995 CanLII 108 (SCC), [1995] 2 SCR 929, the Honourable Mr. Justice Gerald A. Verville concluded the courts have no jurisdiction where a dispute arises out of the interpretation, application or violation of a collective agreement and a labour relations scheme grants exclusive jurisdiction. He noted that whether the dispute arises out of the collective agreement must be determined having regard to the essential character of the dispute and the terms of the collective agreement. He also noted that, where an arbitrator has exclusive jurisdiction, the courts retain a residual discretionary power to grant remedies not available to the arbitrator.

With respect to Dr. Beaulieu’s claims of communicating confidential and defamatory information, Justice Verville noted that the defamation allegations were tied to the improper dissemination of confidential information claim. He found that the collective agreement governs publicity resulting from discipline cases, deals with information on a staff member’s file and contains a mechanism for correcting inaccurate file information. He observed that the allegations in the statement of claim were very similar to allegations contained in a grievance Dr. Beaulieu’s union submitted on his behalf in August 2010, which were deemed abandoned by an arbitrator. Justice Verville concluded that all of those allegations were properly addressed under the collective agreement.

Decision of Court of Appeal of Alberta

In upholding the decision of the Chambers judge, the Court of Appeal reasoned as follows:

[36] Where labour legislation and a collective agreement establish a dispute resolution procedure, that procedure must be followed and should not be duplicated or undermined by concurrent court action. Under this exclusive jurisdiction model, if the dispute between the parties arises from the collective agreement, the courts have no jurisdiction to entertain an action in respect of the dispute. The core issue is whether the dispute arises from the collective agreement. That issue is resolved by considering the essential character of the dispute and the ambit of the collective agreement. The courts retain a residual inherent jurisdiction in exceptional cases, where the remedy required to resolve a dispute is not available through the collective agreement’s dispute resolution procedure.

In the result, both appeals were dismissed. On November 13, 2014, Dr. Beaulieu’s application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was dismissed.


Typically, a case such as this would not be the subject of much interest beyond that of the affected parties. However, the case is important because of another case grabbing media headlines. Readers finding this post shortly after it is published will no doubt be aware of the Jian Ghomeshi saga.

Ghomeshi has sued the CBC in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice alleging breach of confidence and defamation, claims which are not wholly dissimilar from the claims made by Dr. Beaulieu in his case.

In response, the CBC has brought a motion asking the court to dismiss Ghomeshi’s claims on the basis that the court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case, which is exactly what the University of Alberta did.

Who will prevail in the CBC and Ghomeshi matter? The smart money is on the CBC with almost all armchair pundits agreeing the case is straightforward. The Supreme Court of Canda’s recent decision to deny leave in the Beaulieu matter further bolsters those predictions.

Takeaways for Employees with Labour Pains

The takeaway for unionized employees is that one of the compromises of collective bargaining is (generally) the sacrifice of the right to make claims in the courts. Instead, unionized employees are entitled to take advantage of the grievance processes contained within the collective agreement. As the Beaulieu case demonstrates, even if the employee is dissatisfied with the results of those grievances, the same does not mean that the employee may then resort to the civil courts.

If you are an employee subject to a collective bargaining agreement and believe that you are being improperly treated at work, your first step is to speak with your union. If your union fails or refuses to do anything, you may have a case against your union for its breach of its duty of fair representation, but on that issue it would be exceptionally prudent to speak with an experienced labour lawyer. In certain, exceptionally rare cases, you may be able to sue, but again it would be very, very prudent to speak with a lawyer before embarking on such a course of action.

If you are a unionized employee and are looking for independent legal advice about your employment situation, the professional, experienced and cost-effective labour and employment lawyers for employees at Ottawa's Kelly Santini LLP would be happy to be of service to you.

Takeaways for Employers with Labour Pains

If you are an employer of unionized employees and have been sued by one of your employees, the professional, experienced and cost-effective labour and employment lawyers for employers at Ottawa's Kelly Santini LLP would be happy to be of service to your business or organization. It is very likely that we could be successful in having the case summarily dismissed for you.

Contact Me

To reach the author of this blog, Sean Bawden, email or call 613.238.6321 x260. You may also use the contact box at the top of this page.

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As always, everyone’s situation is different. The above is not intended to be legal advice for any particular situation. It is always prudent to seek professional legal advice before making any decisions with respect to your own case.

Sean Bawden, publisher of Labour Pains, can be reached by email at 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. He is also a part-time professor at Algonquin College teaching Trial Advocacy for Paralegals and Small Claims Court Practice.


  1. I am a unionized employee and would like to sue my employer in SCC for defamation. The limitations for bringing an action against my employer through the collective agreement is 15 days from the time the event occurred. That timeline for me has long past. Conversely, the statue of limitations on defamation claims is 2 years for SCC actions.

    I suggest that the different limitation periods are inherently disadvantageous to unionized employee and that on this basis a unionized employee should be able to sue for defamation in SCC.

    I refer to the following part of the decision by the Court of Appeal in Alberta:

    "The courts retain a residual inherent jurisdiction in exceptional cases, where the remedy required to resolve a dispute is not available through the collective agreement’s dispute resolution procedure."

    In my case, the remedy to resolve my claim is no longer available through the collective agreement dispute resolution procedure, specifically because of the restrictive timeline imposed on process in the collective agreement. For this reason, remedy through the collective agreement can no longer be obtained.

    Can this be an argument for taking my claim to SCC and having it heard?

    1. First and foremost the Supreme Court of Canada is not a trial court. One cannot simply show up and argue one's case at the Supreme Court of Canada.

      As to whether you may still have the right to access the court system, you need specific legal advice. If you are located in Ontario, then I may be able to assist you with that advice, provided that we can come to terms on a retainer. Please contact me via email at