Canada: Federal Court Of Appeal Says Employers Can Reasonably Request Better Medical Information Where Health And Safety Of Worker A Factor

In Donaldson v Western Grain By-Products Storage Ltd. 2015 FCA 62, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that it is reasonable to request a more specific medical note when the circumstances warrant such a request.

Mr. Donaldson was an employee at a grain terminal in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In May 2007 he started to experience abdominal pain and vomiting. As a result he was hospitalized for ten days. A month later, Mr. Donaldson filed a claim with the Ontario Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) stating that the symptoms that he experienced were caused by an allergic reaction to grain dust. The WSIB dismissed the claim. 

In October 2007 Mr. Donaldson provided a medical note to Western Grain which stated that, "Mr. Donaldson is now capable of returning to his job and employment." Mr. Donaldson was told that this note was insufficient and that he could not return to work until he provided "a better doctor's note as to his fitness level in relation to his duties and the work environment."

Shortly after, Mr. Donaldson was put on a temporary layoff. Mr. Donaldson then made a complaint to Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC) alleging that Western Grain's refusal to return him to work constituted unjust dismissal. In the response to this complaint, Western Grain stated that it found the note "suspicious" and asked Mr. Donaldson to provide a better medical note.

An adjudicator was then appointed under the Canada Labour Code to hear this complaint. The adjudicator concluded that Mr. Donaldson was constructively dismissed because he was not allowed to return to work and was asked for more medical information. The adjudicator found his dismissal was unjust and that more medical information was not necessary. This decision went to judicial review and a Federal Court judge set aside the decision finding that the adjudicator's findings were unreasonable. Mr. Donaldson then appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal.

The Federal Court of Appeal agreed with the lower court in setting aside the adjudicator's decision. The Court stated the following at paragraphs 40 and 41:

"There is therefore no evidence in the record that supports the adjudicator's finding that the WSIB report was conclusive as to the appellant's capability to return to work and precluded the respondent from asking for a more substantive medical note. Similarly, the two-line note from the appellant's physician lacks any explanation as to why the appellant was now fit to return to work.

It is important to consider that the appellant had been off work for close to six months when he attempted to return to work, and that he had been hospitalized for nearly two weeks at the beginning of this period. The appellant had also indicated to the respondent during the summer months that he remained unwell and could not return to work. In addition, prior to the events in question, the appellant had never been off work for such a long period, nor had he ever made any WSIB claims."

The Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the medical information provided by the employee was insufficient and that the employer had an obligation to ensure health and safety of all its employees. Therefore it was necessary to ask for more detailed medical information. At paragraph 46 the Court stated the following:

"...Considering the factual circumstances, it was reasonable for the respondent, who has an obligation to ensure the safety of its employees, to request further medical information from the appellant upon his return. The two-line doctor's note that the appellant provided did not contain enough information for the respondent to satisfactorily conclude that the appellant may safely return to work."

What should employers take away?

When deciding whether to allow an employee to return to work after being on sick leave employers may request more detailed medical information if it is reasonable. In addition, the employer has an obligation to ensure the health and safety of its employees so in some circumstances it is necessary to request more medical information.

In this decision, Mr. Donaldson experienced serious physical complications and was off from work for a long period of time. It was reasonable for the employer to inquire into his condition, requesting for more detailed medical information. The employer has an obligation to ensure that it is safe for the employee to return to work, and more detailed medical information allows the employer to assess the situation thoroughly.

When employees are absent from the workplace for medical reasons, employers should document all communication with the employee regarding their medical condition. Employers should keep medical information up to date. The lawyers at CCPartners can assist employers in effective absence management, which can assist employers in defending  wrongful dismissal actions and human rights complaints.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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