Judge lacks jurisdiction to hear suit for damages filed against co-worker, employer: B.C. court

Lawsuit subject to dispute resolution process under collective agreement: court

Judge lacks jurisdiction to hear suit for damages filed against co-worker, employer: B.C. court

The Court of Appeal for British Columbia has ruled that a suit for damages filed by an employee against his co-worker and employer should be resolved under the dispute resolution process provided in their collective agreement.

In Masjoody v. Trotignon, 2022 BCCA 135, the appellant, Masood Masjoody, and the respondent, Amelie Trotignon, are former students and employees of the other respondent, Simon Fraser University (SFU). They joined the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) as members and were included in the collective agreement between SFU and TSSU.

In Apr. 2019, the appellant reported the “engagement of SFU with several agents of state supporter of terrorism, officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran,” to the SFU president. He claimed that these agents were receiving support from the SFU. However, the SFU administration took no steps to “rectify the situation.”

The appellant then alleged that the SFU administration retaliated against him by interfering with his personal relationship with Trotignon, such that Trotignon no longer wished to have any contact with the appellant. He also alleged that SFU and Trotignon published defamatory statements about him, including a personal harassment complaint filed by Trotignon with the SFU’s Human Rights Office in Sept. 2019.

Ultimately, SFU did not renew the appellant’s teaching contract. On Apr. 30, the appellant filed a civil suit with the B.C. Supreme Court, seeking damages in defamation and conspiracy against Trotignon and SFU.

The chambers judge dismissed the appellant’s claim and ruled that the civil suit was exclusively governed by the collective agreement between SFU and TSSU.

In his appeal, the appellant alleged that the chambers judge mischaracterized the essential character of his suit as being related to his treatment at his workplace rather than to his personal feelings for and relationship with Trotignon.

In its ruling, the B.C. Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and found no basis to interfere with the chambers judge’s decision.

To resolve the matter, the court determined whether the defamation and conspiracy claims in the civil suit are inextricably linked to the appellant’s employment and therefore fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the dispute resolution process under the collective agreement between SFU and TSSU.

For the defamation claim, the court applied the framework set out in Phillips v. Harrison, 2000 MBCA 150. Under the Philips framework, defamatory statements may be considered work‑related and subject to mandatory dispute resolution procedures under a collective agreement if:

  1.  The comments concern the employee’s character, history, or capacity as an employee;
  2.  The comments were made by someone whose job it was to communicate a workplace problem;
  3. The comments were made to persons who would be expected to be informed of workplace problems.

According to the court, the civil suit alleged discussions between Trotignon and the SFU administration concerning her complaint to the Human Rights Office. It also alleged that the defamatory statements in Trotignon’s complaint meant that the appellant had an “obsessive compulsion towards Trotignon” and was a “stereotypical sexist individual for not understanding boundaries.”

“Applying the Phillips framework, there is no dispute that the second and third criteria are met,” Justice Leonard Marchand said. “The comments at issue were made by people whose job it was to communicate workplace problems and to people who would be expected to be informed of such problems.”

Moreover, the court found that the first criteria had been met since the alleged defamatory statements concerned the appellant’s character, history, or capacity as an employee.

“While it is true that Trotignon’s complaint was directed at ending appellant’s communications with her, her complaint specifically alleges that he harassed her in their shared workplace,” Justice Marchand said.

“This allegation, repeated by SFU, speaks directly to the appellant’s character and capacity as an employee. The appellant’s pleadings acknowledge this in that he specifically alleges that the defamatory statements harmed his reputation as an instructor and mathematician,” Justice Marchand added.

The court agreed with the chambers judge that the appellant’s defamation claim is a labour relations issue and arises directly out of an alleged violation of the prohibitions against discrimination and harassment in the collective agreement.

The court also held that the appellant’s conspiracy claim also falls within the scope of the dispute-resolution process provided by the collective agreement.

“The appellant alleged the conspiracy between SFU and Trotignon had a personal impact on him, especially in the form of the loss of his relationship with Trotignon,” Justice Marchand said. “However, the alleged conspiracy arose in response to his political beliefs and activities, was directed at him as an employee and occurred within his workplace.”

“If true, the conspiracy constitutes a serious violation by his employer of the prohibitions against discrimination and harassment in the collective agreement,” Justice Marchand added.

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