An Ontario employer did not discriminate against an injured worker when it didn’t have work to fit his restrictions and later fired him for what it thought was a fraudulent medical note, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has found.
Pardeep Chodha was an assembler at Times Kitchen and Bath, a producer of kitchen and bathroom cabinetry in Toronto. He was hired on April 21, 2014.
A few weeks into his employment — on June 2 — Chodha was moving a piece of cabinetry with a co-worker when he started feeling pain in his back. He left work to see his doctor, who referred him to a chiropractor. On June 4, he provided a note from the chiropractor and applied for workers’ compensation benefits.
The doctor’s note — which Chodha presented to the owner and president of Times Kitchen — stated that Chodha had sustained an injury to his neck and back and he should avoid bending, lifting, and standing for more than 20 minutes for the next four weeks. Chodha came back to work on June 9 requesting modified duties, but the owner told him he had no work to fit his restrictions and he was sending two other employees home due to a shortage of work.
On June 12, the owner’s suspicion was raised, however, when processing paperwork for the workers’ compensation claim and he noticed the date on the note was Feb. 6, 2014. Since this was several months before Chodha began working for Times Kitchen, he decided Chodha was being dishonest. He terminated Chodha’s employment on June 26.
The following week, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) determined Chodha had suffered a work-related injury to his back and he was unable to perform his job duties. As a result, Chodha was granted loss-of-earnings benefits for his time off work.
Times Kitchen issued a record of employment to Chodha indicating he had been dismissed because he “submitted injury paper not related with Time Kitchen.”
Controversy over date
Chodha claimed the note he submitted was dated “02 06 2014,” which referred to June 2, the date of his injury. He accused Times Kitchen’s owner of changing the “02” to “Feb.” and then using it as an excuse to fire him. He filed a human rights complaint alleging his dismissal amounted to discrimination because of disability as the fact he had been injured on the job and had reported it to the WSIB was the reason for termination — which also prevented him from receiving workers’ compensation benefits.
Further to his claim, he presented a note from his chiropractor stating he was initially assessed on June 2 and had “never been seen by me on Feb. 6, 2014.”
Chodha also claimed the company’s refusal to accommodate him was also discrimination.
A WSIB re-employment claims manager found Times Kitchen had terminated Chodha’s employment “because of his injury and claim for benefits,” which was a breach of the re-employment obligations under the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Act. Times Kitchen was ordered to co-operate in the return-to-work process and offer Chodha’s job back or face a $73,000 fine.
Times Kitchen indicated it was prepared to re-employ Chodha and it developed a return-to-work plan with modified work duties — including assistance and reduced work hours — with consultation from the WSIB.
However, Chodha decided he didn’t want to return to Times Kitchen because of how he had been treated. But in refusing suitable work that was available, his loss-of-earnings benefits were cut off by the WSIB.
An appeals resolution officer overturned this decision, finding the work available wasn’t suitable for Chodha and he was entitled to loss-of-earnings benefits up to Nov. 19, 2014 — the date Chodha slipped on some ice in a non-work-related accident and exacerbated his injuries, from which he had almost fully recovered.
Chodha received employment insurance benefits until August 2015, after which he found a new job.
Note’s date a ‘mystery’
The tribunal examined a copy of the note — the original note was lost and Times Kitchen had a scan of it — and could not find any evidence the date was changed. There was no indication of whiteout and the date was in the same handwriting as the rest of the note. The tribunal accepted the chiropractor’s statement he didn’t see Chodha on Feb. 6, 2014, but it also found the note wasn’t altered and the reason it was dated Feb. 6 was “a mystery.”
The tribunal noted that under the Ontario Human Rights Code, the issue was not whether the employer has offered suitable employment — first determined by the WSIB as yes and then by an appeals resolution officer as no — but whether the employer had accommodated the worker to the point of undue hardship.
The code’s definition of “disability” also included “an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997,” said the tribunal.
Times Kitchen was engaged with the workers’ compensation process until the owner noticed the date on the note, said the tribunal. Since it had already found the date on the note hadn’t been altered, it accepted that Times Kitchen sincerely believed the date was evidence the note was fraudulent and Chodha was trying to substantiate an absence from work with a note from several months before his job started.
This belief in a fraudulent note was a “non-discriminatory explanation for the termination of the employment,” said the tribunal.
In addition, Times Kitchen was a small business and Chodha’s medical restrictions significantly limited the work he could do, found the tribunal. It was reasonable to think there were no modified duties available for Chodha immediately following his injury and it wasn’t discriminatory for the owner to tell him so.
“The duty to accommodate an injured employee who cannot do his regular duties does not necessarily require an employer to immediately offer alternative work,” said the tribunal in dismissing Chodha’s human rights complaint. “The employer is not obliged to offer alternate work if there is no such work or if the employee would not have been working if the injury had not occurred because of a shortage of work.”
For more information see:
• Chodha v. 1352866 Ontario Inc., 2016 CarswellOnt 21283 (Ont. Human Rights Trib.).
Jeffrey Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.
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