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Appeal Watch: Douglas Martin v Worker’s Compensation Board of Alberta, et al.

The Supreme Court of Canada (the “SCC”) has granted leave to appeal in Douglas Martin v Worker’s Compensation Board of Alberta, et al. with a tentative hearing date of December 10th, 2013.

Background

Douglas Martin worked for Parks Canada in Banff, Alberta. On December 18th, 2006, Parks Canada delivered a disclosure letter to Martin requesting him to disclose information relating to data on his work computer. Parks Canada had received a request under the Access to Information Act and required information from Martin so they could comply with the request.

Upon receipt of the letter, Martin claimed that it triggered a “psychological/emotional condition” resulting in a leave of absence from work. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Martin ultimately claimed for compensation for work-related chronic stress under the Government Employees Compensation Act, RSC 1985, c G-5 (“GECA”).

The issue is whether eligibility criteria established under the Alberta Worker’s Compensation Act, RSA 200, c W-15 (the “WCA”) can apply to claims under GECA.

Competing Statutory Interpretations

The argument centers around two competing interpretations of GECA and the eligibility requirements for proving a psychological injury arising from the workplace. Martin argues that there are only two eligibility requirements under GECA that he has to satisfy to receive compensation. The Board, on the other hand, interprets GECA as including provincial criteria, which requires Martin to satisfy four eligibility requirements to receive compensation.

Martin is a federal employee and thus the federal legislation – GECA applies to his application for compensation. Martin argues that section 4(1)(a)(i) of GECA alone determines his eligibility for compensation:

“4. (1)     Subject to this Act, compensation shall be paid to

(a)     an employee who

(i)     is caused personal injury by an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment, or […..]”

According to Martin, all that a claimant has to prove to qualify for compensation is 1) an accident arising out of and in the course of employment that 2) causes personal injury to the employee. An “accident” is defined under GECA as including “a wilful and an intentional act, not being the act of the employee, and a fortuitous event occasioned by a physical or natural cause.”

In Martin’s case, receiving the disclosure letter could arguably be the “accident” arising out of and in the course of his employment that caused him personal injury, entitling him to compensation under GECA.

However, section 4(2) of GECA states that an employee seeking a claim under the statute is “entitled to receive compensation at the same rate and under the same conditions as are provided under the law of the province.”

The Workers Compensation Board argues that this provision requires proving the additional eligibility criteria for assessing psychological or psychiatric injury applicable to all workers in Alberta.

Under the WCA, four eligibility criteria have been outlined for determining whether a claim for psychological or psychiatric injury will be accepted as an “accident” or not. For a claim to be eligible, it has to meet all of the following criteria:

“1. There is a confirmed psychological or psychiatric diagnosis as described in the DSM.

2. The work-related events or stressors are the predominant cause of the injury.

3. The work-related events are excessive or unusual in comparison to the normal pressures and tensions experienced by the average worker in a similar occupation.

4. There is objective confirmation of the events.”

The Board adjudicator applied the additional eligibility criteria to Martin’s claim and denied compensation as he failed to meet the third and fourth requirements. Receiving a disclosure letter from Parks Canada was not an “excessive or unusual” event compared to the normal pressures and tensions experience by an average worker in a similar occupation and Martin’s subjective allegations could not be objectively confirmed.

Martin appealed for judicial review after exhausting the appeal mechanisms of the Board – all of which upheld the adjudicator’s decision. Martin appealed on the basis that the Board erred in including the additional criteria in his eligibility assessment.

Chambers Judge Accepts Martin’s Interpretation

Upon judicial review, the decision of the Board was overturned by the chambers judge who concluded that s. 4(1)(a)(i) of GECA alone determined the eligibility of claim and that s. 4(2) did not mean to include the additional provincial eligibility factors in the analysis:

“In [the chamber judge’s] view, the language in s. 4(2) of GECA that a federal employee is “entitled to receive compensation at the same rate and under the same conditions as provided in the province” meant only that a federal employee would be governed by the “rates of compensation and determination of compensation, but not the issue of entitlement”

The chambers judge would have allowed the appeal and sent the matter back to the Board for a new determination of eligibility based on s. 4(1)(a)(i) of GECA.

Court of Appeal Reverses; Accepts Board’s Interpretation

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the chambers judge’s decision and referred to the constitutional doctrine in Canada that the courts should “facilitate co-operative federalism” and not search out conflicts. The Court of Appeal said:

“In the end result, we find no signal in s. 2 of GECA and s. 4(1)(a)(i) of GECA that Parliament intended to override the application of eligibility criteria established by provinces under their jurisdiction such as reflected by the WCARather, reading GECA and WCA attentively in their context in a manner which gives meaning and effect to both statutes, as done by the Commission, was an approach which conformed with principles of statutory construction.

The Court of Appeal overturned the trial judge’s decision and restored the decision of the Board.

Concurring Judgment says Interpretations are Irrelevant

In a concurring judgment at the Court of Appeal, Justice McDonald commented that the matter could have been easily dispensed with – even if Martin’s interpretation was used, his injury would still fail to qualify as an “accident” because it was not caused by a “willful and intentional act” nor can the receipt of a disclosure letter constitute “any conceivable form of accident.”

Based on Justice McDonald’s line of reasoning, determining which interpretation is the correct one is irrelevant based on the facts of this case because Martin’s claim would fail either way.

Clarification by the Supreme Court of Canada

It is unlikely that the Supreme Court will dispose of the matter according to Justice McDonald’s reasoning. Rather, it is expected that the Supreme Court will clarify the rules of statutory construction and whether the provisions of GECA allow for the inclusion of provincial eligibility criteria or if such an inclusion would conflict with the federal legislation.

 

[filed: Appeal Watch]

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