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A Recent Employment Law Case and Depression

As noted above, human rights legislation in Ontario is on the verge of expanding the potential exposure to employers and recognition of disabilities even where an absence from work may be related to substance abuse issues will often trigger entitlement to substantial damages, even where the employer may feel that there was just cause to dismiss the employee. The recent Alberta case of Whitford v. Agrium Inc.1, demonstrates this. In Whitford¸ the plaintiff had worked for the defendant for 22.5 years, all but 21.5 of which as a union member. In the last year, he became a supervisor. His employer recognized that he had developed an addiction to alcohol along with pre-existing depression. Due to these conditions he missed a lot of time from work over a period of some six months. His last week of absence was allegedly without leave of the employer and he was dismissed for cause. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that his dismissal was wrongful and awarded him damages. They were of the view that many of his absences were not accompanied by warnings and he was granted approval for prior periods of absence. The attitude of the Court to the plaintiff’s alcoholism and depression is as follows:

At the time of his dismissal Whitford was a 22-year-plus employee with Agrium with a previously good service record; before October of 2002 he had no record of significant absenteeism. In October of 2002, he began treatment for alcoholism and continued to be treated by a psychiatrist for previously diagnosed depression. Thus, the absences which commenced in October of 2002 were based on two diagnosed medical conditions and he requested leave on two occasions for the express purpose of seeking treatment for his alcoholism. Moreover, his absences for illness and treatment were, by and large, approved by the employer until approximately April of 2003.

The case is silent with respect to whether Whitford had any disability benefits available to him, however, the message is clear with respect to the duty to accommodate. The case itself is not ground-breaking, however, it does demonstrate the trend in employment litigation which favours compassion and responsibility towards people suffering with depression and substance abuse problems.

1 2006 ABQB 726, [2006] A.W.L.D. 3245, [2006] A.W.L.D. 3244, [2006] A.W.L.D.
3242, 53 C.C.E.L. (3d) 272, 65 Alta. L.R. (4th) 374, [2007] 1 W.W.R. 621