The Court of Appeal of Quebec recently rendered a judgment[1] that could potentially have serious implications for employers facing multiple claims for psychological harassment in the workplace.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeal allowed the continuation of an employee's recourse for psychological harassment before Quebec’s labour relations board (the "CRT")[2] under the Act Respecting Labour Standards (the "Labour Standards Act" or "LSA"), despite a previous ruling by the Commission des lésions professionnelles (Quebec’s occupational injuries commission, which we’ll call the "CLP")[3] dismissing the employee's claim for employment injury based on the same alleged harassment under the Act Respecting Industrial Accidents and Occupational Diseases (the "Industrial Accidents Act"  or "IAA").

After Quebec's occupational health and safety commission (the "CSST")[4] denied the employee's claim for employment injury stemming from psychological harassment, the employee appealed this decision before the CLP.  The latter dismissed the claim, but not without ambiguity, since it first indicated that it was not bound to rule on the existence of psychological harassment as defined by the LSA but then concluded that the facts in evidence were not tantamount to harassment.

The employee then filed a complaint for psychological harassment under the LSA,[5] this time before the CRT.  At the hearing, the employer raised a preliminary objection since, in its opinion, the psychological harassment issue had already been ruled upon, and the CRT could not contradict the CLP's conclusion.  The CRT granted the employer's objection on the grounds that it could not see how the employee could prove psychological harassment based on the same facts that led the CLP to dismiss the claim.  The CRT's decision was upheld by the Superior Court.

However, after a detailed analysis of the relevant legal provisions,[6] the Court of Appeal overturned the Superior Court judgment and allowed the employee's recourse to continue. The Court of Appeal first emphasized that "psychological harassment" has been defined in the LSA since 2004 and that the Labour Code confers exclusive jurisdiction to the CRT (as well as arbitrators and the Commission de la fonction publique) to rule on any complaint regarding psychological harassment.

In comparison, the CLP's duty is to determine whether an employee has suffered an "employment injury" as defined by the IAA, which does not contain any definition of psychological harassment.  That said, the Court emphasized that the CLP's predecessor[7] had already acknowledged that psychological harassment in the workplace could constitute an employment injury.

In spite of this, the Court of Appeal emphasized that the CRT holds exclusive statutory jurisdiction to rule on the existence of workplace harassment (i.e. to determine whether the employer has breached its obligations under Section 81.19 of the LSA).  While the LSA provides a mechanism to avoid double-indemnification when an employee receives benefits or indemnities pursuant to the IAA, the Court of Appeal indicated that the law is intended to allow cumulative recourses, each with its own distinctive purpose: one to decide on the matter of employment injury, and the other to rule on the existence of workplace harassment, even though both may bear similarities.  In the first case, the CLP must rule on the existence of an employment injury (of a psychological nature in this case) regardless of liability.  In the second case, the CRT must decide if the employee's right to a harassment-free workplace was respected and if the employer breached its duties in this regard.

Based on the foregoing, the Court of Appeal ruled that the CRT should have exercised its exclusive jurisdiction over the employee's claim for psychological harassment under the LSA, acknowledging nonetheless that the CLP had partially answered this question.  The Court concluded by noting that the CRT may consider the CLP's judgment, without being bound by it.  The Court therefore ordered that the complaint be referred anew to the CRT for hearing.

This judgment may have serious repercussions on employers, as they may have to double their efforts to defend themselves before two jurisdictions, with the cost that this entails. For instance, a decision by the CSST to indemnify the employee could result in the invoicing of costs to the employer (e.g. rehabilitation costs) and possibly an increase in premiums, while opening the door to a direct order to pay from the CRT (e.g. lost wages, punitive damages).  Defence costs must also be taken into account when faced with two recourses.

That being said, one must not forget that psychological harassment does not necessarily give rise to an employment injury and vice versa.  Each situation will have to be analyzed based on its specific facts.  In all cases, it will be in the employers' best interest to prevent such situations by establishing and applying rigorous policies to prevent psychological harassment.