Friday, January 5, 2018

Supreme Court of Canada Extends Human Rights Protection from Employment Discrimination to Co-Workers

In British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal v. Schrenk 2017 SCC62, a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada found that the British Columbia Human Rights Code’s (“Code”) prohibition against discrimination “regarding employment” prohibits discrimination against employees even where the discriminatory conduct was carried out by a co-worker and not the employer.  The court held that the Code applies whenever the discrimination has a “sufficient nexus” with employment. 

In this case the complainant Sheikhzadeh-Mashgoul (the “Complainant”) filed a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal (“Tribunal”) against the respondent Schrenk (the “Respondent”) alleging employment discrimination based on religion, place of origin and sexual orientation. 

The Complainant worked for an engineering company as a civil engineer on a road improvement project.  The engineering company had certain supervisory powers over employees of a construction company, the primary contractor on the project.  The construction company employed the Respondent as a site foreman and superintendent.  When the Respondent made racist and homophobic statements to the Complainant, he was initially removed from the site but when the harassment continued, the construction company terminated his employment.

The Complainant immigrated to Canada from Iran and identified as Muslim.  When the Respondent learned of the Complainant’s origin and religion he made jokes about being blown up by a suicide bomb, called the Complainant a “fucking Muslim piece of shit”, and asked him whether he was going to call  his gay friend.  After the Complainant complained the Respondent persisted and shouted “go back to your mosque where you came from”.  Such behaviour resulted in the Respondent being removed from the work site.  However, subsequently he sent unsolicited emails to the Complainant in which he made derogatory insinuations about his sexual orientation. 

The Respondent brought an application to dismiss the complaint in which he argued that his alleged conduct was not discrimination “regarding employment” and was consequently beyond the jurisdiction of the Tribunal.  The Respondent’s argument was simple:  he was not in a position of economic authority over the Complainant.  He was neither the Complainant’s employer nor his superior in the workplace.  His conduct, however egregious, could not be considered discrimination “regarding employment” within the meaning of the Code.  

The Tribunal held that it had jurisdiction to deal with the complaint and denied the Respondent’s application to dismiss the complaint.  The British Columbia Supreme Court dismissed the Respondent’s application for judicial review, but the Court of Appeal allowed his appeal and found that the Tribunal had erred in law by concluding that it had jurisdiction over the complaint.

A 6 – 3 majority of the Supreme Court (Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Wagner, Gascon, Rowe and Abella) disagreed with the Court of Appeal and allowed the appeal (Justice Moldaver wrote the majority decision with a separate concurring decision written by Justice Abella).  Justices McLachlin, Cote and Brown dissented. 

The majority held as follows. 

The case involved the interpretation of the meaning of the words “employment” and “person” in the Code.   Reading the Code in line with the modern principle of statutory interpretation and the particular rules that apply to the interpretation of human rights legislation the prohibition against discrimination against employees prohibits discrimination whenever that discrimination has a sufficient nexus with the employment context.  This may include discrimination by their co-workers even when those co-workers have a different employer.   The discrimination in the case had sufficient nexus to the Complainant’s employment because the Respondent was integral to the Complainant’s workplace, the impugned conduct had occurred in the Complainant’s workplace and the Complainant’s work environment was negatively affected.   This contextual interpretation furthers the purposes of the Code by recognizing how employee vulnerability stems not only from economic subordination to their employers but also from being a captive audience to other perpetrators of discrimination such as a harassing co-worker. 

In separate reasons, Justice Abella found that the analysis requires that the meaning of employment discrimination be considered in a way that is consistent with the Supreme Court’s well settled human rights principles and not just the particular words of the Code.  Applying these principles leads to the conclusion that an employee is protected from discrimination related to or associated with his or her employment, whether or not he or she occupies a position of authority.  As a result, the Tribunal had jurisdiction to hear the complaint.

The dissenting three judges held that the prohibition against workplace discrimination in the relevant section of the Code applied only to employer-employee or similar relationships and authorized claims against those responsible for ensuring that workplaces are free of discrimination.  If the section were interpreted to allow claims against anyone in the workplace most of the next section which provides a separate protection against discrimination by unions and associates would be redundant.  The Code required the Complainant to focus on the employer, i.e. the people responsible for maintaining a discrimination free workplace.  Where the employer fails to intervene or prevent or correct discrimination the section is engaged.   

Importantly in this case, the court expanded human rights code protection against employment discrimination to encompass discrimination outside of the confines of the traditional employer-employee relationship. 



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