Supreme Court rules on worker’s request for oral hearing in compensation claim

Was 'procedural fairness' violated?

Supreme Court rules on worker’s request for oral hearing in compensation claim

The Supreme Court of British Columbia recently dealt with a case involving a worker's application for judicial review of a Workers' Compensation Appeal Tribunal (WCAT) decision that denied her claim for compensation for a mental disorder arising from her employment.

The key issue in the case revolved around WCAT's refusal to grant the worker an oral hearing, which she argued was a breach of procedural fairness and an unreasonable interpretation of the relevant legislation.

The court had to examine the interplay between the worker's right to a fair hearing, the tribunal's discretion in determining the appropriate appeal method, and the specific requirements of the Workers' Compensation Act.

Worker’s claim for compensation

The worker, an air traffic controller, filed a claim for compensation with the Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) for a mental disorder that she alleged arose from her employment.

She had a difficult relationship with a colleague, which led to a harassment complaint against her and disciplinary action by her employer. The worker subsequently experienced a panic attack and was diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Section 135 of the Act provides compensation for diagnosed mental disorders that arise out of and in the course of employment caused by one or more traumatic events or significant workplace stressors. However, pursuant to s. 135(1)(c), such disorders are only compensable if:

“The mental disorder is not caused by a decision of the worker's employer relating to the worker's employment, including a decision to change the work to be performed or the working conditions, to discipline the worker or to terminate the worker's employment.”

The court said that this is known as the “employment exclusion.” The WCB denied the worker's claim, and she unsuccessfully sought review by the Review Division of WCB before appealing to WCAT.

Worker's oral hearing request

In her notice of appeal, the worker requested an oral hearing, which WCAT initially granted. However, due to various reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the oral hearing was postponed several times.

Ultimately, WCAT informed the parties that the appeal would proceed by written submission, with the panel reserving the right to re-evaluate the need for an oral hearing once the submissions were complete.

The worker provided her written submission, reiterating her request for an oral hearing, but the panel dismissed her appeal without holding one.

The worker challenged WCAT's decision on two grounds. First, she argued that by denying her an oral hearing, the panel treated her oral testimony as irrelevant to the "employment exclusion" under the Workers' Compensation Act, which she contended was a patently unreasonable interpretation of the legislation.

Second, she claimed that the denial of an oral hearing breached the rules of procedural fairness.

Court’s decision on employment exclusion

In its decision, the court disagreed with the worker on both grounds. It found that the panel's interpretation of the employment exclusion was not patently unreasonable, as determining an employer's motivation in its actions towards an employee does not turn on the employee's perceptions or opinions.

The court noted that a finding of malice or ill-intent on the part of the employer requires an objective analysis and evidence.

“Determining an employer’s motivation in its actions towards an employee does not turn on the employee’s perceptions or opinions of the employer. A finding of malice or ill-intent requires an objective analysis and objective evidence,” the court said.

“WCAT decisions have expressly rejected the proposition that a worker’s subjective perceptions and beliefs can establish malice or ill-intent,” it added.

Regarding procedural fairness, the court found that WCAT had notified the worker of how the panel intended to proceed with respect to the appeal method and had acted consistently with its Manual of Rules of Practice and Procedures (MRPP).

The court also determined that the panel had provided sufficient reasons for its decision to proceed by written submission rather than an oral hearing.

The court rejected the worker's argument that the panel had justified its choice of procedure based on the outcome of the appeal, finding that the panel had determined that the written evidence was sufficient to decide the merits and that an oral hearing was not necessary.

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