In its recently released decision of Stewart v. Elk Valley Coal Corp, 2017 SCC 30, the Supreme Court of Canada held that an employer had cause to dismiss Ian Stewart, a mine worker, who tested positive for cocaine.

Background Information

Elk Valley Coal Corp. operated a mine. Given the dangerous nature of the work, the employer implemented an Alcohol, Illegal Drugs & Medication Policy┬Ł, whereby employees were required to disclose any dependence or addiction issues before a drug-related incident occurred. Further to the policy, an employee who disclosed such information would be offered treatment by the employer but an employee who failed to disclose would be dismissed if the employee was involved in an incident and then tested positive for drugs. All of the employees were required to sign a form and all employees knew and understood the policy.

Facts leading to dismissal

Mr. Stewart was a loader driver at Elk Valley Coal Corp. Although he used cocaine on his days off he did not disclose this to the employer as required by the policy. He was tested for drugs subsequent to an accident while driving the loader and the results came back positive. Mr. Stewart then claimed that he thought he was addicted to cocaine. Nine days later, the employer dismissed Mr. Stewart for breaching its policy i.e., for failing to disclose his addiction. The letter of termination given by the employer also clearly stated this as the reason

Human Rights Complaint

Mr. Stewart filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal under the Alberta Hum Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act, alleging discrimination based on disability i.e., addiction.

The Alberta Human Rights Tribunal found that Mr. Stewart’s human rights had not been breached because the employer had terminated him solely because he had violated the employer’s policy.

The Tribunal also found that the employer had accommodated Mr. Stewart up to the point of undue hardship in that he had been given an opportunity to self-disclose without being disciplined under the policy, but had chosen not to do so.

Mr. Stewart appealed and both the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench and the Alberta Court of Appeal agreed with the Tribunal that there was no prima facie discrimination.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Tribunal’s decision and agreed that the employer had dismissed Mr. Stewart because he had violated the policy.

The Court rejected Mr. Stewart’ argument that the reason he had not disclosed his addiction was because he was in denial. Based on expert evidence, the Supreme Court held that even if Mr. Stewart was in denial, he knew that he should not take drugs while working; he could have refrained from taking the drugs; and he had the capacity to inform his employer about his drug use.

The Court also held that it was unnecessary to decide whether Elk Valley Coal had accommodated Mr. Stewart, because the Tribunal had reasonably concluded that addiction was not a factor in the employer’s decision.

Employer Takeaways

In this case, the worker’s dismissal was upheld because:

  • The employer had a well drafted, clear policy on drug and alcohol use.
  • The employer’s policy appropriately supported and accommodated employees who were drug dependent by giving them the opportunity to self-disclose without attracting disciplinary consequences, so they could get treatment.
  • Expert testimony showed that the employee’s addiction did not deprive him of his ability to make choices about the drug use and self-disclose that he had a disability.
  • The termination letter was well drafted and made it clear that the reason for dismissal was the breach of the employer’s policy.