Fit As A Fiddle?: Employer Entitlements to Medical Information

In Western Grain By-Products Storage Ltd. v. Donaldson, the Federal Court of Appeal decided that employers are entitled to more detailed medical information to establish an employee’s fitness to work after an absence of six months or longer.

Peter J. Donaldson had been employed by Western Grain By-Products Storage Ltd. (“Western Grain”) for about 20 years. Mr. Donaldson became ill in May 2007, possibly as a result of a toxic allergic reaction to grain dust. He had been off work for close to six months when he attempted to return to work after a workers’ compensation board determined that he did not suffer from an occupational disease and dismissed his claim. He presented Western Grain with a short note from his family physician stating that he was able to return to work. In its entirety, the note stated:

“Mr. Donaldson is now capable of returning to his job & employment at Western Grain”

Western Grain refused to permit Mr. Donaldson to return to work until he presented more comprehensive medical information as to his fitness to perform his work duties in that work environment. Shortly thereafter, Western Grain advised Mr. Donaldson that he was being placed on temporary layoff for reasons unrelated to his illness.

Mr. Donaldson claimed that Western Grain’s refusal to permit him to return to work constituted unjust dismissal. Pursuant to the Canada Labour Code, an adjudicator heard the case and determined that Mr. Donaldson was indeed unjustly dismissed from his employment. First, the adjudicator found that the findings of the workers’ compensation board were sufficient for the employer to determine whether the employee was fit to return to work. Furthermore, the adjudicator understood Western Grain’s request for medical information as a request to produce medical documentation for a period of over 20 years of employment. The adjudicator held that because Western Grain required an overly broad and onerous production of information before Mr. Donaldson would be permitted to return to the workplace, Mr. Donaldson was entitled to consider himself constructively dismissed.

On application for judicial review, the Federal Court ultimately decided that the adjudicator’s conclusion was unreasonable because it was based on a misunderstanding of Western Grain’s request for further medical information. Mr. Donaldson appealed this decision unsuccessfully as the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the Federal Court’s finding.

The Federal Court of Appeal made the following findings of fact and conclusions:

  • The decision of the workers compensation board was not conclusive as to Mr. Donaldson’s capability to return to work. Therefore, Western Grain was not precluded from obtaining further medical information from Mr. Donaldson directly.
  • The two-line note from the Mr. Donaldson’s physician lacked any explanation as to why he was now fit to return to work. It was reasonable for an employer to obtain further medical information from an employee upon his or her return from a lengthy period of sick leave in order to fulfil its obligations under Part III of the Canada Labour Code to ensure the health and safety of its employees. Therefore, the request for more substantive medical documentation did not amount to a change in a fundamental term of Mr. Donaldson’s employment such as to constitute a constructive dismissal.

Mr. Donaldson’s appeal was dismissed and the adjudicator’s order set aside.

This case confirms that employers have the right to request substantive medical documentation confirming an employee’s fitness for work when the employee has been absent from the workplace due to a medical condition for an extended period of time. Employers should consider including a detailed job description with its medical request to ensure that the physician understands the work environment and the duties which the employee will be expected to perform. The response to the request should provide sufficient detail of the employee’s physical and/or mental restrictions to assist the employer to make an informed decision as to whether or not the workplace is safe for the employee and if not, whether any modifications are needed to ensure a safe return.