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Signed release form holds up at Ontario tribunal as worker’s human rights claim dismissed

by HR Law Canada

A worker who signed a release letter, and received a package from their employer, has had their application alleging discrimination on the grounds of sex, including sexual harassment, dismissed by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

The worker, NK, filed the application alleging workplace sexual harassment and subsequent wrongful termination. The applicant claimed to have reported the harassment to their employer — TRACTEL Swing Stage Limited — who did not adequately investigate and later terminated their employment.

TRACTEL had requested the dismissal of the application on the basis that the applicant had signed a “Final Account and Release Letter” releasing the respondent from all liabilities related to employment.

The release form

The release, dated March 12, 2018, outlined several financial terms including wages for a week, accrued vacation pay, and a three-week notice pay.

It specifically stated that signing it would “fully release and discharge” the employer from any liabilities including those under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Despite the release, NK argued that its contents were unclear, especially concerning their human rights. They also stated that they were unaware of relinquishing any rights by signing the document.

The employer’s position

The employer argues that filing a human rights application after signing a full and final release could be considered an abuse of the tribunal’s process and should therefore be dismissed.

They cite subsection 23(1) of the Statutory Powers and Procedures Act and Rule A8 of the Tribunal’s Rules of Procedure, emphasizing the Perricone v. Fabco Plastics Wholesale case as a precedent.

The respondents note that the applicant was advised to review the termination letter and release and to seek legal counsel if desired. They point out that the release was signed after this advice was given, although the exact timing is unclear.

The applicant, who is described as an educated individual working in a complex engineering field, never expressed confusion about the release or asked for clarification.

Furthermore, the respondents argue that typical financial pressures stemming from job loss do not amount to duress. They refer to multiple cases, including Lizzola v. Nordia Inc. and Sugianto v. Sweda Canada Inc., to support the idea that duress only exists when there is “no realistic alternative” other than signing the release.

They contend that once a release is signed upon termination, it bars the individual from pursuing any application under the Code against a former co-worker, as long as the alleged breach occurred in an employment context.

The employee’s position

NK sought to have the tribunal look at the case as an individual case, and not reference cases cited by the employer. “I need my case to be seen as an isolated case,” they said.

NK also said the release did not indicate there was consideration — i.e., payment.

“Because the cover letter stated that the applicant was ‘entitled’ to the additional four weeks pay (on top of the statutory entitlement of three weeks pay in lieu of notice), the applicant did not believe that they were giving up any rights and therefore did not feel any need to get legal advice,” the ruling read.

NK testified that they signed the release before they left the office, did not understand the nature of the document and did not review its contents with anyone.

“I did not understand the nature of the document that I signed from its contents,” NK said in a sworn witness statement. “The only thing I understood was that I needed to sign it in order to get termination pay. I felt like I had to sign it because I had just been unexpectedly fired and needed income.”

NK added they were not in a “sound state of mind because of the environment at TRACTEL,” but the tribunal noted they provided no evidence.

The tribunal’s decision

The Tribunal ruled that the applicant’s case could not be distinguished from the main body of case law on the issue of abuse of process.

“Although every case must turn on its own facts, I cannot, as (NK) would have me do, completely disregard the relevant case law,” the tribunal said.

The tribunal emphasized the importance of the “principle of finality” in legal matters, stating that once a contract, like a release, is signed, it should be given effect unless there are compelling reasons to set it aside.

The applicant argued that the release was “unfair” and that there was a lack of consideration. However, the tribunal found that the applicant had received their statutory entitlements under the Employment Standards Act 2000 and an additional four weeks of pay for signing the release.

The tribunal also found no evidence of duress or illegitimate pressure applied to the applicant, who had been advised to seek counsel and had not seemed confused during the termination meeting.

The tribunal concluded there was no compelling reason not to give effect to the release and that the applicant had not established duress. As a result, the application was deemed an abuse of the tribunal’s process and was dismissed.

For more information, see Kamal v. TRACTEL Swing Stage Limited, 2023 HRTO 1388 (CanLII)

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