A recent Quebec decision has confirmed that fatigue was not considered a disease for the purposes of an employee’s entitlement to disabilty benefits, under a collective agreement.
The Plaintiff, a unionized administrative assistant, contested the employer’s refusal to recognize that she was disabled within the meaning of the collective agreement, for the period ranging from August 18th, 2010 to January 17th, 2011 and the non-payment of disability benefits for that period.
On February 25th, 2010, the plaintiff went off work due to multiple surgeries that took place during the months of February and May of the same year. In July, she received a medical note from her doctor extending her leave until the end of August as a result of post-operation fatigue.
The employer, who until then had not contested the employee’s leave, exercised its right under the collective agreement to have the Plaintiff examined by a doctor of its choice. The examination took place on August 11, 2010, and the doctor concluded that there were no restrictions to the Plaintiff returning to work since there were no disabling pathologies. The employer thus informed the Plaintiff that her condition no longer corresponded to the definition of disability stipulated in the collective agreement and asked her to return to work on August 18th. However, the Plaintiff chose instead to follow her doctor’s advice to only return to work on a progressive basis commencing September 22nd, 2010. The employer allowed the graduated return to work and the employee returned, on a full-time basis as of January 17th, 2010.
The employee grieved the non-payment of benefits following August 12, 2010. However, the arbitrator concluded that from that date, the Plaintiff’s absence from work was no longer due to a medical condition. It was based on persistent fatigue that her doctor had noted in previous and subsequent consultations during the months of July, September and October of 2010.
The jurisprudence establishes that the right to disability benefits depends on three (3) conditions: 1) the incapacity is caused by a disease, 2) which requires medical monitoring and 3) that makes the person unable to perform routine tasks associated with his/her position or any other similar position. When an employer demonstrates that at least one of these three conditions no longer exits, the employee’s benefits will cease.
In the present case, the term “disease” was not defined in the collective agreement. As a result, it had to be interpreted according to its usual and common meaning, which is an organic or functional alteration of the state of health. Fatigue, being a state of increased discomfort and decreased efficiency resulting from prolonged or excessive exertion, does not fit into this definition.
That being said, from August 18th, 2010, the Plaintiff’s absence from work could no longer be medically justified. Therefore, she was not entitled to disability benefits under the collective agreement for that period.
Moreover, the fact that the employer allowed the Plaintiff to make a progressive return to work did not constitute a recognition of a disability but rather a compromise or an accommodation following the recommendation of her doctor. For all these reasons, the employee’s grievance was denied.