Authors: Leah Schatz, Q.C., Brent Matkowski
In a recent Saskatchewan Court of Appeal decision, Wieler v. Saskatoon Convalescent Home, 2017 SKCA 90, the employer terminated an employee by paying her severance in exchange for a general release of claims arising from her termination. The employee obtained independent legal advice on the arrangement and executed a release. A month later she filed a complaint alleging her termination constituted discrimination under Saskatchewan’s former Occupational Health & Safety Act, 1993 (OH&S Act).
When the complaint was initially filed, the OH&S Officer reviewing it chose not to proceed with the complaint due to a signed release. The employee appealed the Officer’s decision to an adjudicator.
The adjudicator held that the released barred the complainant – as the release was clear and unequivocal. The employee appealed the adjudicator’s decision to the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board.
The Board held that neither the adjudicator nor the OH&S Officer had erred in finding the release was valid and enforceable, and the OHS Officer had not committed an error in declining to proceed with the matter.
The Court of Appeal held that the provisions of the former OH&S Act had a dual purpose: a broader societal interest in promoting healthy work environments as well as a private interest for individuals affected by violations of the OH&S Act.
The Court held that a release granted in the face of a systemic workplace issue might not prevent an OH&S Officer from proceeding to investigate a complaint. As the matter before the Court concerned an alleged past infraction that was personal to the employee, the OH&S Act permitted the individual to release her interests under the OH&S Act and the release was binding. The OH&S Officer therefore acted correctly in declining to proceed with the complaint.
Employers should ensure that all releases signed by employees at the time of termination are drafted in such a way as to include all potential claims of a personal nature related to employment generally, including those related to statutory rights such as occupational health and safety and human rights.
Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.