A 2013 decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal provided helpful guidance to employers while overturning a trial judge’s decision which found that Yohann Johnson had been constructively dismissed due to racism and a poisoned work environment.

An employee had refused to attend training with Johnson for reasons related to an incident in the past where Johnson had laughed at a joke allegedly about the employee’s brother’s murder.  A third party employee told Johnson that the employee had refused to train with Johnson because the employee’s brother had been murdered by a black man, and Johnson was black.  Johnson made complaints of racism which resulted in three separate investigations by GM, none of which found that there was racially motivated conduct.

Johnson eventually came to view the workplace as a poisoned work environment.  He took an approved medical leave under the care of a psychiatrist and claimed he was disabled due to discriminatory treatment caused by racism in his workplace. After two years of leave, GM’s physician found that Johnson was able to return to work.  Johnson demanded a position in one of two locations where he would not encounter certain employees related to his complaints.  GM was unable to accommodate his request, but did offer him positions in other locations where he would not encounter the individuals.  Johnson did not return to work, and GM deemed him to have resigned.

The trial judge found that Johnson had been the victim of racist behaviour, a poisoned work environment, and that GM’s actions amounted to constructive dismissal. The Court of Appeal overturned the trial decision on all counts, finding that while Johnson may have genuinely believed that he had been the victim of racism in his workplace and that his perception may have led to stress and mental anguish, the facts did not support these findings.

The key message here: a person’s subjective view that they’ve suffered a particular kind of discrimination is not determinative of the question.

General Motors of Canada Limited v. Yohann Johnson, 2013 ONCA 502 (released July 31, 2013)