Batter Up: Judicial Replacement of a Labour Arbitrator’s Award

Telus Communications Inc. v. Telecommunications Workers Union, 2014 ABCA 199, is a recent Alberta Court of Appeal decision addressing the just cause termination of an employee, the amount of deference that a reviewing court must give to a labour arbitration decision, and the issue of when a reviewing court may replace a labour arbitrator’s award.

In the case, the Alberta Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal from a Queen’s Bench decision (2013 ABQB 355) quashing a labour arbitration award and resulting remedy.

The decision concerned a Telus employee who asked for a day off to play in a slo-pitch tournament. His request was denied due to staffing concerns. Shortly before his shift began on the requested day, he informed his manager via text message that he could not attend work due to unforeseen circumstances. The manager went to the ball park later that morning and found the employee pitching.

At a subsequent investigative meeting, the employee initially said that he was ill. When questioned further, he admitted to being at the ball park, but stated that he was able to manage his symptoms there (which he could not have done at a customer’s home). He asserted that he was at the park to watch, not play. He later said that he was only pitching, not batting.

Telus ultimately terminated the employee. The Union grieved the termination.

The arbitrator found that the employee’s account of his illness and his explanation of being able to manage his illness at the ball park was plausible, and that Telus had no evidence that he was not sick. Though the employee’s lies about playing ball were misguided and demonstrative of bad judgment, he was remorseful, and his lies did not have significant impact. The arbitrator did not see sufficient reason to conclude that the trust between Telus and the employee could not be re-established if he were reinstated, so the arbitrator substituted a one-month suspension for the termination.

On judicial review, Justice J.T. McCarthy quashed the arbitrator’s conclusion and upheld the employee’s termination.

Writing for the majority, Justices O’Ferrall and Veldhuis of the Court of Appeal recognized that, generally, a reviewing court must afford deference to an arbitration award under a collective agreement and review it on a standard of reasonableness. If the court determines that the arbitrator’s decision was unreasonable, the matter must in theory be sent back for a re-hearing. However, the court has discretion to not do so where the facts lead to only one reasonable result.

The majority agreed with the reviewing justice that it was unreasonable for the arbitrator to require Telus to prove that the employee was sick. The arbitrator erred in not considering all available evidence and by not conducting a thorough assessment of the employee’s credibility. Further, the arbitrator’s finding that the employee’s conduct did not have significant impact was not supported by the evidence, given that the employee himself acknowledged that his trust relationship with Telus had been broken and that his actions negatively impacted customer service. Reinstatement was an unreasonable remedy, as it failed to consider relevant factors such as Telus’ evidence that its trust relationship with the employee was irreparably damaged. Termination was the only reasonable outcome.

Consequently, the majority concluded that the reviewing justice was correct in overturning the arbitrator’s decision and upholding the employee’s termination.

Look who’s talking: Collaboration in the authorship of expert reports

The Ontario Court of Appeal has reaffirmed the propriety of effective consultation between counsel and expert witnesses.

In Moore v Getahun, 2015 ONCA 55, the plaintiff was injured in a motorcycle accident. Prior to surgery, his wrist was placed in a cast which resulted in the plaintiff suffering from compartment syndrome. At trial, the central issue was whether applying a full cast to the plaintiff’s wrist was below the standard of care, and whether the cast caused the compartment syndrome.

Experts were retained to provide medical reports on the above issues. During cross-examination, one expert testified that he produced and discussed his draft and final report with counsel who provided advice on the report. The trial judge criticised these actions and stated that these discussions breached an expert’s duty of impartiality. The judge found that it was improper for counsel to assist an expert witness in preparation of the expert’s report. This view was challenged on appeal.

The Ontario Court of Appeal concluded that the trial judge erred in ruling that it is unacceptable for counsel to review and discuss draft expert reports, although this did not affect the overall decision of the court.

At paragraph 49, the Court of Appeal discussed Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 53.03, stating that it is:

“Widely accepted that consultation between counsel and expert witnesses in the preparation of Rule 53.03 reports, within certain limits, is necessary to ensure the efficient and orderly presentation of expert evidence and the timely, affordable and just resolution of claims.”

Further, Rule 4.1.01(1) specifically states that an expert witness has a duty to “provide opinion evidence that is fair, objective, and non-partisan.” This evidence should be seen as the independent product of an uninfluenced party which provides independent and unbiased assistance to the court.
In Moore, the changes made by the expert at the direction of counsel were relatively minor, and were aimed at improving clarity of the report. The Court stated that banning discussions between counsel and expert witnesses or mandating that all communication be documented is contrary to well-established precedent. These discussions may be necessary in highly technical areas of the law when an expert requires an increased level of instruction and consultation. Proper communication is vital to the expert being able to communicate effectively to the court.

There are a number of factors that foster an expert witness’ independence, including: professional standards forbidding counsel from engaging in practices that may interfere with this objectivity, ethical standards requiring members of professional bodies to be impartial when giving expert evidence, and the tool of cross-examination during the trial process.

Finally, at para 65, the Court stated:

“Leaving the expert witness entirely to his or her own devices, or requiring all changes to be documented in a formalized written exchange, would result in increased delay and cost in a regime already struggling to deliver justice in a timely and efficient manner. Such a rule would encourage the hiring of “shadow experts” to advise counsel. There would be an incentive to jettison rather than edit and improve badly drafted reports, causing added cost and delay. “

Just as judges require the assistance of expert witnesses, these expert witnesses require the assistance of lawyers to frame their evidence in a comprehensive and responsive manner. As such, these discussions are to be permitted.