Discrimination Due To Family Status – The Final Word?

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In a just-released decision, the Federal Court of Appeal has confirmed that the ground of discrimination due to family status under the Canadian Human Rights Act includes parental obligations which engage a parent’s legal responsibility for a child, such as childcare obligations.  But fear not employers - parental choices such as voluntary family activities will not trigger similar claims of discrimination due to family status.

Background:

On May 2, 2014, the Federal Court of Appeal released its long-awaited decision in the case of Johnstone v. Canada Border Services Agency (“CBSA”).  Fionna Ann Johnstone had been employed by the CBSA since 1998, and her husband was employed by the CBSA as well.  After having children, Johnstone asked for accommodation to her work schedule at Pearson International Airport.  The CBSA had a complicated work schedule for its full-time employees, which included rotating through 6 different start times over the course of days, afternoons and evenings with no predictable pattern, as well as working different work days during the duration of the schedule.  The schedule was based on a 56 day pattern and subject to change on 5 days’ notice.  Johnstone could not find a caregiver due to her schedule and her husband was unable to cover her work days with any certainty as he was subject to the same unpredictable schedule, albeit one that was not coordinated with hers.

Johnstone requested accommodation in the form of a fixed full-time schedule but was only offered a fixed part-time schedule.  Interestingly, the CBSA had previously accommodated disabled employees with a fixed full-time schedule, but it refused to do so in this case because it felt it had no duty to accommodate Johnstone’s childcare responsibilities.

The case moved through a long and circuitous route beginning in 2004 from the Human Rights Commission to the Federal Court, back to the Human Rights Tribunal and finally to the Federal Court of Appeal (with judicial review of some decisions along the way).

The Decision:

After reviewing the law in great detail, the Federal Court of Appeal determined that family status includes childcare obligations which a parent cannot neglect without engaging his or her legal liability.  The court was careful to confirm however, that voluntary family activities such as family trips and extracurriculars do not fall under the family status protections, as they result from parental choices rather than obligations.

In turning to whether or not a prima facie case of discrimination due to family status has been made out, the court stated that an employee must be able to demonstrate the he or she has unsuccessfully sought out reasonable alternative childcare arrangements, and is unable to fulfill his or her parental obligations as a result.  More particularly, the court invoked a four-part test under which the individual making the claim of discrimination must show: (i) that a child is under his or her care of supervision; (ii) that the childcare obligation at issue engages the individual’s legal responsibility for that child, as opposed to a personal choice; (iii) that he or she has made reasonable but unsuccessful efforts to meet those childcare obligations through reasonable alternative solutions; and (iv) that the workplace rule interferes in a manner that is more than trivial or insubstantial with the fulfillment of the childcare obligations.

Based on all of the above, the Court upheld the finding in favour of Johnstone, together with most of the remedies awarded by the lower court (lost wages and benefits from 2004; $15,000 for pain and suffering; $20,000 in special compensation due to the fact that CBSA was found to have engaged in a discriminatory practice wilfully and recklessly).  In addition, the CBSA was ordered to consult with the Canadian Human Rights Commission to develop a plan to prevent future incidents of discrimination due to family status.

There remains just one ground of appeal left for this matter, and it will be interesting to see whether the CBSA moves for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Topics:  Canada, Discrimination, Divorce, Employer Liability Issues

Published In: Civil Rights Updates, Labor & Employment Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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