Last month the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in the case of Quebec (Commission des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail) v. Caron, affirming that the human rights "duty to accommodate" in employment is a separate (and paramount) consideration from any other specific legislative requirement that purports to address an employee's ability to return to work.  While the lawyers at CCPartners have always taken that view – and so advised employers – this case serves as an important reminder that employers must always take heed of their specific obligations under human rights legislation no matter what other processes or third parties may be involved in an employee's return to the workplace.

M. Caron, a special educator at a centre for persons with intellectual disabilities, was injured at work and developed a chronic elbow condition.  The Commission des norms, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (the "Commission") – the body charged with administering Quebec's workers' compensation legislation, the Act respecting industrial accidents and occupational diseases¬ (the "Act") – determined that M. Caron had suffered a workplace injury and, after one temporary assignment finished, agreed when the employer said that it had no other suitable work for him.  As a result, the Commission advised M. Caron that it would pursue the rehabilitation process elsewhere, essentially moving into a process of retraining and/or re-employment in a different setting.

M. Caron then argued that this decision was premature given his employer's duty to accommodate under Quebec's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (the "Charter").  The Commission determined that the duty to accommodate under the Charter did not apply to the Act.  On appeal to the Commission des lésions professionelles (the "CLP") – the administrative body charged exclusively with appeals under the Act – the CLP concluded that the statutory benefits in the Act represent the full extent of the employer's duty to accommodate.

This result was – understandably in our view – overturned by the Quebec Superior Court; the Quebec Court of Appeal then also agreed, stating that the Act should be interpreted and applied in accordance with the provisions of the Charter, and the employer's duty to accommodate should be integrated in to the Act.

Although a complete review of duty-to-accommodate jurisprudence is beyond the scope of this space, it is interesting to note that many of the prominent "accommodation" cases over the years have arisen in the context of Quebec labour law – an historical fact that was noted by the Justice Abella in writing for the Supreme Court in Caron as set out below – and as such it seems a somewhat strange approach for the Commission to take:

The duty to reasonably accommodate disabled employees is a fundamental tenet of Canadian and, more particularly, Quebec labour law. The goal of the duty to accommodate in the employment context was summarized by Deschamps J. as being "to ensure that an employee who is able to work can do so. . . . The purpose of the duty to accommodate is to ensure that persons who are otherwise fit to work are not unfairly excluded where working conditions can be adjusted without undue hardship"

In any event, it was not difficult for the Supreme Court to affirm the Quebec Court of Appeal's decision in Caron and send the case back for a proper consideration by the Administrative Labour Tribunal (the CLP's institutional successor) as to whether or not M. Caron had been, or could be, properly accommodated by the employer.

In our view, this is the proper result, and illustrates why we always caution employers that, no matter the involvement and outcome of any other process – including workers' compensation or third-party insurance claims adjudication – the employer's duty to accommodate is a separate and distinct obligation that must be considered in every instance.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.