Supreme Court of Canada upholds decision to dismiss employee who failed drug test

In the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in Stewart v. Elk Valley Coal Corp, the Court upheld the dismissal of a mine worker who tested positive for cocaine following an accident.

The employer operated a mine. It was a dangerous work site and both the employer and the employees placed great emphasis on safety. To ensure a safe workplace, the employer implemented a policy which required employees to disclose any dependence or addiction issues before any drug-related incident occurred. If an employee disclosed such information, the employee would be offered treatment by the employer. However, if an employee failed to disclose, was involved in an incident, and then tested positive for drugs, the employee would be dismissed. All employees knew and understood the policy and were required to sign an acknowledgment form.

Stewart worked in the mine as a loader driver. He used cocaine on his days off but had not disclosed this to his employer under the policy. After he had an accident while driving his loader, Stewart tested positive for drugs. He later claimed he thought he was addicted to cocaine. He was dismissed for breaching the policy.

Stewart filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal. He claimed he was dismissed due to his disability (addiction), which constituted discrimination under the Alberta Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act. The Tribunal disagreed. It found that Stewart could have complied with the employer’s policy and that he was terminated solely because he breached the policy and not because of any prohibited ground.

The Tribunal’s decision was affirmed by both the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench and by the Alberta Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Tribunal’s decision. It noted that while the Tribunal could have found that an addiction was a factor in Stewart’s termination, which would have been prohibited, it unequivocally and repeatedly stated that addiction was not a factor in the employer’s decision. The Court also rejected Stewart’s argument that he did not disclose his addiction because he was in denial. It found that even if Stewart was in denial, he still knew he should not take drugs while working, had the ability to refrain from taking them, and had the capacity to inform his employer about his drug use.

As the Tribunal’s conclusions were reasonable, it was unnecessary to consider whether Stewart was reasonably accommodated by his employer and the appeal was dismissed.

This decision illustrates the importance of clearly drafted policies. If such a policy is to be relied upon, employees should be given a copy of the policy and sign an acknowledgment form indicating they understand its terms.

The full text of the case can be read here.

Questions relating to the content of the article may be directed to Paul Fairweather.

This article may not be republished without the express written permission of Harris and Company LLP