The BC Court of Appeal has ruled that a School Board policy denying married employees access to internally co-coordinated benefits does not violate the Human Rights Code or the equality provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Co-coordinated benefits refers to the ability of an employee, through the combination of two benefit plans (e.g., the employee’s plan, and his/her spouse’s plan), to obtain benefit coverage up to the combined limits of the two plans. Coverage is externally coordinated where the employee and the spouse have different employers, such that each employee is a subscriber in one plan and a dependent in the other. Coverage is internally coordinated where both employees have the same employer, such that each is both a subscriber and a dependent in the same plan.
The School Board’s policy prohibited the internal co-ordination of benefits by teacher spouses. Under the policy, where both spouses were teachers employed by the School Board, each of them could elect to enroll in the benefit plan either as a dependent or as a subscriber, but not as both. The practical effect of the policy was that whereas there could be no internal coordination of benefits by spouses who were both employees of the School Board, teachers whose spouses worked for other employers were free to coordinate benefits externally.
The Union filed a grievance, claiming that the School Board’s policy discriminated on the basis of marital status, and thereby violated both the Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Arbitrator Emily Burke agreed. She ruled that but for the Union’s discrimination claim, she would have followed the jurisprudence which establishes the principle that a claim to coordinated benefits must be expressed in clear language in the collective agreement. She found that the policy was discriminatory because it distinguished between teachers who were married to fellow teachers, and those who were not.
The School Board appealed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal. The Board argued that the Charter did not apply to the School Board’s policy, and that in any event, the policy was not discriminatory. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, with each justice providing different reasons on the discrimination issue. The question of whether Charter applies to actions of the School Board was not answered.
Mr. Justice Braidwood reasoned that the collective agreement provided for the same benefit coverage for all teachers regardless of marital or family status. He noted that if teachers who are married to each other were entitled to coordinated benefits it would allow them greater coverage under the School Board’s plan than the other teachers. He found that there was no discrimination because no negotiated benefit was lost through the School Board’s policy.
Mr. Justice Thackray accepted that there was inequality arising from a denial of a benefit, but allowed the appeal for two reasons. First, he accepted the School Board’s argument that the denial of coordinated benefits did not result from marital status. Second, he found that there was no discrimination because there was no “marginalizing, ignoring or devaluing of persons or groups.” He concluded that the requirement under the School Board’s policy for married teachers to choose which of the two was to be the claimant, could not cause “a devaluation of self-respect or self-worth.”
Similarly, Madam Justice Huddart found that the policy did not adversely affect the dignity and self-worth of a teacher because it did not force a teacher to become a dependent of another teacher but instead gave the teacher the option of enrolment in the benefit plan in his or her own right. However, Madam Justice Huddart did find that the effect of the School Board’s policy on benefits for dependent children was discriminatory. She concluded that “marriage to a fellow teacher precludes [a teacher] from claiming benefits he or she would otherwise receive to benefit his or her dependent children. This aspect of the policy runs afoul of s. 13 of the Human Rights Code because it engages the stereotypical assumptions …, namely, that there is really only one primary breadwinner in a family and that this parent’s set of benefits ought to be enough. It fails to recognize that all parents have the same obligations to their dependent children.”
This decision is of note to employers because it confirms that the ability to coordinate benefits internally is not a right, but rather a privilege that must be obtained through collective bargaining. Further, the case illustrates that not all distinctions will be found to be discriminatory, but only those which lead to adverse consequences.
Counsel for the successful School Board were Peter A. Csiszar and Jennifer A. Lamont of Harris & Company.
(click here for full text of the judgment)