Employee abandoned position by not providing required medical information about inability to work

Legitimate disability doesn't matter if employee doesn't provide employer with adequate information

Employees who have legitimate medical issues can abandon their employment if they don’t follow proper procedures regarding medical leave and disability benefits, the Ontario Divisional Court has ruled.

Anthony Betts was hired as a learning specialist for IBM in Nova Scotia and later moved to the company’s New Brunswick location to serve as a system service representative. Betts suffered from an anxiety disorder and in 2008, he had a depressive episode. This resulted in him taking a leave of absence from September 2008 to January 2009. While he was off work, he received benefits under IBM’s short-term disability (STD) plan.

On October 2013, Betts’ father died and he suffered another depressive episode soon after. He became unable to work and applied for STD again on Oct. 21.

While off work, Betts moved to Mississauga, Ont., to live with his fiancée and undergo psychotherapy. In December 2013, IBM sent an “absence option letter” to Betts telling him if he didn’t return to work or submit medical documentation supporting his absence by a certain date, it would consider him to have voluntarily resigned from his position. IBM sent four more such letters over the next few months, each with a later deadline.

Betts responded to each letter with letters and emails from his psychotherapist recommending that he should not return to work because of his depression and anxiety. However, he didn’t include any documentation from a medical doctor.

On Jan. 16, 2014, IBM’s STD benefits provider, Manulife, rejected his STD application. Betts appealed the decision but was rejected again on Feb. 26.

IBM sent a fifth and final absence option letter to Betts on May 14, asking him to provide more medical documentation to make a second appeal for STD benefits, or else he would have to return to work by June 30. Betts notified IBM on June 20 that he wouldn’t return to work because of his psychotherapist’s recommendations.

Based on Betts’ response, IBM determined that Betts resigned from his position effective June 30, 2014. Betts filed a claim for wrongful dismissal and a motions judge dismissed the claim, finding Betts had “abandoned or resigned from his employment.”

Betts appealed the decision, but the appeal court agreed with the motions judge, finding that Betts failed to report to work for eight months, failed to follow the procedures in the STD plan by providing accepted medical information, and moved to Ontario without informing his employer.

Both the motions judge and the appeal court found the above factors indicated that Betts abandoned his employment. Though he suffered from depression and anxiety disorders, he didn’t follow through on what was required of him to support his absence or his application for STD benefits, even though he obviously knew what to do because of his earlier stint on STD. In addition, the five absence option letters were clear on what IBM needed from him and gave him plenty of opportunity to remedy the situation, said the appeal court in dismissing the action.

“Over a period of eight-and-a-half months, IBM offered (Betts) numerous chances to submit appropriate medical evidence to establish that he could not return to work,” said the appeal court. “As the motion judge noted, even an employee suffering from medical issues is not immune from being found to have abandoned his employment.”

See Betts v. IBM Canada Ltd., 2016 CarswellOnt 7483 (Ont. Div. Ct.).

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