Ontario court dismisses wrongful dismissal class action by unionized employees

Labour board has jurisdiction over collective bargaining relationship, despite expired collective agreement: Court
By John Field and Lauri Reesor
|employmentlawtoday.com|Last Updated: 05/13/2013

On May 9, 2013, the Ontario Superior Court dismissed a proposed class action brought by unionized employees who alleged they were constructively or wrongfully dismissed following a plant closure by their employer, Navistar Canada, a vehicle and engine manufacturer based in Burlington, Ont. Collective agreements had expired two years prior to the plant closure. The Court held that the continuation of the collective bargaining relationship between the union, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), and Navistar was a bar to any assertion by the employees that they had individual employment contracts upon which to base their claims.

Navistar closed its plant in July 2011. Negotiations with the union on a closure agreement followed, but they were unsuccessful. In what the court characterized as a "tactical decision by the union to skirt around its obligation to continue negotiating as the certified bargaining agent of the Navistar employees," the employees' proposed class proceeding was then brought forward. Navistar brought a motion in which it sought dismissal of the proposed class action, on the basis that the court had no jurisdiction to hear the matter as the employees and all members of the proposed class were represented by the CAW and thus exclusive jurisdiction rested with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).

The court agreed. It reviewed the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of Canada advanced by Navistar in support of its argument that notwithstanding the expiration of a collective agreement and a subsequent plant closure, there remains a collective bargaining relationship subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the OLRB.

"The obligation to meet and negotiate is enshrined in the (Labour Relations Act) and it is an ongoing and positive duty of both sides to do so," said the court.

The court found the expiration of the collective agreements had no effect on this obligation. To allow the action to proceed would be to allow the employees and their union to "circumvent the collective bargaining relationship that survives the expiry of the former collective agreement and the plant closure," said the court. The court held that a comprehensive statutory scheme was in place to adjudicate disputes such as these, and any interpretation giving the courts concurrent jurisdiction would undermine the legislature’s policy objectives.

The court struck out the claim and dismissed the proposed class action with costs to Navistar on a partial indemnity basis.

For more information see:

Baker and Lucier v. Navistar, 2013 ONSC 2778 (Ont. S.C.J.).

John C. Field and Lauri A. Reesor are partners with Hicks Morley in Toronto. John can be reached at at (416) 864-7301 or john-field@hicksmorley.com. Lauri can be reached at (416) 864-7288 or lauri.reesor@hicksmorley.com.

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