St. John’s must disclose aggregate amount it paid to settle workplace issues at Mary Brown’s Centre: Privacy commissioner

Mile One Centre in St. John's, N.L., has been renamed Mary Brown's Centre. Photo: Google Streetview

The City of St. John’s has been ordered to release information on payments it made to settle workplace issues at the Mary Brown’s Centre (formerly known as Mile One Centre) by Newfoundland and Labrador’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

The order stems from a request made by an individual seeking financial statements for St. John’s Sports and Entertainment (SJSEL) for 2019 to 2021. SJSEL is a corporate created by the city to operate and manage the arena.

Objection from the city

The city released most of the information requested, but balked at handing over the aggregate amount it paid out to settle workplace issues. (It also declined to hand over total liabilities for 2021, but that issue is not explored in this article.)

It cited an earlier decision by the commissioner that declined to release the individual remuneration paid to employees who left SJSEL as part of the ongoing workplace matter. In that ruling, the city argued that since there were still outstanding claims, disclosing the amounts paid for specific individuals would compromise its ability to negotiate and settle future claims.

The city argued the same principles applied in this case. It noted there are still two claims against SJSEL relating to the workplace matter, though litigation has not commenced in either.

“Knowing that person A received $100,000 and person B received $150,000 is no less harmful to the financial interests of SJSEL and its ability to continue negotiations with outstanding known claimants than the resulting $250,000 was paid to two individuals,” the city said in its affidavit.

“With this information and the release of the aggregate amounts, it is not difficult for an average per employee to be calculated to SJSEL’s detriment. An average amount would be inaccurate and would not reflect circumstances accurately, however it will be used against SJSEL.”

The complainant’s position

The complainant argued the information being withheld involves the expenditure of public funds and does not harm, financially or otherwise, either the city or those who have already reached a settlement with it.

The commissioner’s ruling

The commissioner noted that, in the earlier ruling in favour of the city, it made some caveats. That ruling “rested largely on the notion that the disclosed information would allow a possible future claimant to establish a baseline from which to begin negotiating a settlement with the city.”

That baseline argument was now moot because the information requested here was the aggregate total paid out to all claimants. It would not provide any individual breakdown or list the number of former employees to whom settlements have been paid, it said.

The city argued that if a claimant were to determine the number of settlements covered by the aggregate number, it would be able to calculate an average. It argued that would be even worse than if the individual settlement amounts were released, because claimants would expect to receive the average.

But the commissioner rejected that line of thinking.

“This is a difficult argument to accept,” it said. “It is highly unlikely that the complainant’s legal representation would sustain an argument for compensation based solely on the average paid out without consideration for any other facts.”

Workplace litigation ‘far more complex’

It noted the fact the city is negotiating with claimants related to SJSEL is well known, and the release of the aggregate amounts would not prejudice the city financially.

“It merely confirms that settlements have been paid, which is publicly known,” the commissioner said. “It does not mean that a present or future claimant could derive a negotiating position or quantum expectation based on the information released.”

In short, workplace litigation is “far more complex” than that, it reasoned.

The ruling, dated March 8, 2023, gave the head of the City of St. John’s 10 business days to provide a written notice of his or her decision to the commissioner and any person who was sent a copy of the report.

For more information see Report A-2023-012.