The Federal Court of Appeal decided in Western Grain
By-Products Storage Ltd. v. Donaldson, 2015 FCA 62 (March 4,
2015), that Western Grain By-Products Storage Ltd ("Western
Grain") did not constructively dismiss its employee,
Donaldson, when it refused to return him to work from extended
leave due to illness without receipt of "a better
Donaldson had been employed by Western Grain, the operator of a
grain terminal, for approximately 20 years. On May 9, 2007, he was
hospitalized for approximately 11 days due to illness. He remained
off work and notified his employer that his physician had concluded
that he was unable to return to work due to health concerns. He
made a claim with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB)
stating that his symptoms were possibly related to a toxic allergic
reaction to grain dust. On October 17, 2007, the WSIB informed
Donaldson that his medical records did not establish that his
illness was an occupational disease.
On October 25, 2007, Donaldson provided Western Grain with a two
line note from his physician indicating that he was "now
capable of returning to his job." Western Grain found the
note to be deficient and advised Donaldson that he would not be
permitted to return to active employment until he presented
"a better doctor's note as to his fitness level in
relation to his duties and the work environment." At
issue in this case was whether Western Grain was justified in
asking for a more substantive medical note.
The adjudicator who originally heard this matter concluded that
Donaldson had been constructively dismissed because the WSIB had
found that there was no medical basis for finding that Donaldson
suffered from an allergic reaction. He found that the 25 week
absence from the workplace was to allow for consideration,
investigation and determination of Donaldson's WSIB claim, and
that the WSIB report was authoritative that he was able to return
to work. The adjudicator concluded that Western Grain had
"placed effective barriers" that
"exceeded any reasonable term of employment" and
denied Donaldson his right to return to work.
The Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal overturned the
adjudicator's decision. The evidence showed that Donaldson, who
had not previously been off work for such an extended period of
time or filed any previous WSIB claims, had been ill and unfit for
work for a period of months. The WSIB report was not conclusive
about Donaldson's ability to return to work and the medical
note provided by Donaldson to Western Grain indicating his fitness
to return in October 2007, lacked an explanation as to why the
appellant was now able to return to work.
The Federal Court of Appeal acknowledged that employers have an
obligation to ensure its workers' safety. It concluded that the
two-line doctor's note provided contained insufficient
information and that it was reasonable in the circumstances for
Western Grain to request further medical information prior to
allowing Donaldson's return.
Lessons for Employers
Generally the amount of medical information to which employers
are entitled positively correlates with the duration of the
employee's absence from the workplace. The Federal Court of
Appeal acknowledged in this case that employers have a duty to
ensure the safety of its employees and as such, employers are
entitled to reasonably satisfy themselves that its employees are
fit to return to work after absences due to illness. This decision
appears to indicate that such satisfaction may require employees to
provide a medical opinion as to why they are able to return to work
after an extended absence related to an unexplained illness.
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