In a recent Quebec Superior Court judgment,1 Catherine Mandeville, JSC, dismissed, before the hearing on the merits, actions for a permanent injunction and damages brought by an employer and one of its managers against a union and two of its representatives in their personal capacity, i.e. its president and a union advisor from the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN). The Superior Court recognized that such actions are manifestly ill-founded and abusive because they are intended to have a dissuasive effect on the exercise of union duties and to delay the hearing of grievances by the arbitrator.
In preparation for a meeting with her superiors, a department manager had drafted a document in which she referred to management problems she was experiencing as a result of conflicts with certain unionized employees and to the impact that those problems were having on her psychological health. The document suggested solving the problem by, among other things, terminating the employment of certain unionized employees.
An employee came upon the document by chance in the tray of the printer and a few months later gave it to a colleague who had launched grievance proceedings to contest her termination, which was officially the result of restructuring. That person forwarded the document to the union president.
As part of the grievance arbitration proceedings, the union’s counsel informed the employer’s counsel of the existence of the document and summoned the department manager to appear as a witness.
The employer and the manager then brought a motion for a permanent injunction and $800,000 in damages against the union, its president and the CSN union advisor in their personal capacity.
At the provisional stage, the employer and the manager obtained, on affidavit from the manager declaring that the document had likely been stolen or obtained by hacking into her personal computer, an order of the Superior Court requiring, in particular, that the union, its president and the CSN union advisor confirm the destruction of any copies of the document.
After it was revealed during the examination stage that the document had been found in the tray of the department’s printer by a former employee not party to the litigation and subsequently forwarded to the union, the employer and the manager amended their proceedings to allege that the union, its president and the CSN union advisor were holding the document without right, still claiming $800,000 in damages.
It is in this factual context that the union, its president and the CSN representative filed a motion for dismissal of the actions before the hearing on the merits, relying on the new Code of Civil Procedure provisions designed, among other things, to prevent strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). They claimed material, moral and punitive damages in the amount of $75,000.
In its judgment, the Superior Court underscores the strained relations between the employer and the union in regard to the grievances of employees contesting the termination of their employment.
The court first notes that the proceedings do not allege any personal wrongdoing on the part of the defendants, other than their possessing the document without right in the performance of their union duties. In this regard, the Superior Court points out that the union announced that it wanted to use the document in the arbitration of the grievances because of its mission to defend the rights of its members. Alleged concerns that the document would be used or communicated in a prejudicial manner has no foundation in the evidence and the prejudice, for which grossly excessive damages are being claimed, is hypothetical and an indicator of an inappropriate use of the judicial system.
Since the action against the union president and the CSN union advisor, in their personal capacity, is comparable to a SLAPP designed to dissuade them from performing their union duties, it was dismissed, with costs.
Second, according to the Superior Court, an employer that objects to the admissibility in evidence of a document in grievance arbitration proceedings should first take its objection to the arbitration tribunal or file an employer grievance against the union for damages.
The Superior Court notes that the only fault attributed to the union is that it refused to return the document and was willing to use it in the dispute between the parties. Meanwhile, the damages claimed are excessive and not supported by the allegations in the proceedings, which are vague and hypothetical.
This action by the employer against the union is therefore dismissed because it is abusive and [translation] “[…] is not intended to legitimately advance the rights of the parties but rather to suspend the hearing of a debate already begun within the framework of a grievance and to delay its hearing […].”
Lastly, the Superior Court dismisses the manager action against the union president and the CSN union advisor, in their personal capacity. The court finds that the manager displayed recklessness by pursuing her action against them when she knew that her personal information had not been obtained by hacking into her computer, that they had not played a part in the former employee’s decision to seize the document and that they had access to the document in the performance of their union duties on a limited-use basis and solely for the purposes of grievance arbitration.
Only the manager’s action against the union is upheld, particularly because as a manager-level employee of the company, she does not have access to the grievance procedure.
In all cases, the Superior Court rules that the costs are a sufficient penalty and no damages are awarded to the union.
The judgment of the Superior Court is in keeping with the tendency of the courts to ensure that the judicial process is actually used properly. Moreover, it is a clear reaffirmation of the grievance arbitrator’s exclusive jurisdiction when a matter arises from labour relations between an employer and a union, including jurisdiction regarding the admissibility of certain evidence and the handing down of all types of orders, particularly in cases involving a potential violation of fundamental rights.