Home Featured Nova Scotia court says it doesn’t have jurisdiction in defamation case involving unionized workers who witnessed shooting

Nova Scotia court says it doesn’t have jurisdiction in defamation case involving unionized workers who witnessed shooting

by HR Law Canada

The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia has ruled that it does not have jurisdiction to hear a defamation and negligent conduct claim brought by two unionized employees — who allegedly witnessed a shooting on the job — against their managers at the Metro Regional Housing Authority (MRHA) and the Province of Nova Scotia.

The court found that the dispute falls under the exclusive jurisdiction of an arbitrator as per the terms of the Collective Agreement in place.

The plaintiffs, members of the International Union of Operating Engineers, local 721 B, alleged they witnessed the shooting while at work on Oct. 30, 2020, leading to permanent impairment benefits granted for psychological injuries. Subsequent communications by MRHA management questioned the occurrence of the shooting, actions the plaintiffs claim were defamatory and caused mental suffering.

In the judgment, the court referenced the precedent set by the Supreme Court of Canada in Weber v. Ontario Hydro, clarifying that disputes arising from a collective agreement are to be resolved by an arbitrator. The court noted, “if the difference between the parties arises (expressly or inferentially) from the collective agreement, the courts have no power to hear an action in respect of the dispute.”

Further undermining the plaintiffs’ case, the court cited Canadian Labour Arbitration and other legal precedents to affirm that the types of damages sought by the plaintiffs are indeed within the scope of an arbitrator’s powers. As such, even the tort claims of defamation involved here are arbitrable, the court concluded.

The ruling stated, “The alleged defamatory statements were made by management towards unionized employees, at work, concerned the capacity and character of the employees, and arise impliedly out of the context of the Collective Agreement.” This finding aligns with the legislative intent to streamline labour disputes through arbitration, ensuring consistency in the management of labour relations issues.

Despite arguments that the defendants had accepted the court’s jurisdiction by filing a defense, the court clarified, “a defendant cannot attorn to the jurisdiction of the Court if the Court does not possess that jurisdiction in the first place,” referencing Rule 13.03(1)(b) which mandates the setting aside of claims outside its jurisdiction.

The decision reinforces the framework that collective agreement disputes are best handled within the arbitration system, supporting a more streamlined and specialized handling of labour disputes.

The plaintiffs’ claim was dismissed with costs awarded to the defendants, and the court has called for submissions on the matter of costs if no agreement is reached within 30 days.

For more information, see Ashley v. Nova Scotia (Attorney General), 2024 NSSC 104 (CanLII).

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