TORONTO – A group of current and former officers alleging systemic sexism and harassment in the ranks of a southern Ontario police force cannot proceed with a proposed class-action lawsuit against the service, Ontario’s top court ruled Friday.
The Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld a lower-court decision that ruled the allegations against the Waterloo Regional Police Service and its union fell outside the jurisdiction of a civil court and were best addressed by an arbitration board or the province’s human rights tribunal.
The group of largely female officers behind the unproven allegations claimed they had experienced pervasive gender-based discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment and active assaults over several decades – claims the force denied.
In trying to launch their lawsuit on behalf of all current and former female cops, the officers argued that a class action was the best way to provide women with access to justice.
The police force argued that allowing the class-action suit to proceed could undermine labour dispute negotiations across Canada.
The Appeal Court sided with the lower-court judge, agreeing that a civil court was not the best forum for the case and noting that the officers neglected another potential avenue for airing their concerns.
“The appellants argue that the discriminatory environment in which they find themselves leaves them without an adequate remedy on a practical basis and that this requires that they be granted access to the courts,” the decision reads.
“One fatal flaw in this argument is that the appellants have not attempted to avail themselves of the mandatory grievance/arbitration process or led evidence to demonstrate that it is practically unavailable.”
The $165-million proposed class action was launched in 2017 and named the Waterloo Regional Police Services Board and Waterloo Regional Police Association as defendants. The force said it viewed the suit as“inappropriate” and vowed to challenge it.
Court documents named the original plaintiffs as Angelina Rivers, Sharon Zehr and Barry Zehr, whose allegations of gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment spanned from 1988 to the present.
In addition to claims of systemic issues, Rivers and Sharon Zehr also levelled specific allegations. Those included allegedly being driven to remote areas and asked to perform oral sex, having equipment removed from their police vehicles, lewd text messages in the middle of the night, and being dragged into a men’s change room by male colleagues.
The plaintiffs also alleged they were “isolated, disregarded and warned of repercussions to their career” when they complained to superiors.
Justice Deena Baltman, who originally ruled on the case last year, found the Superior Court had no jurisdiction in the matter and said the claims should be adjudicated either at the
Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario or before a labour arbitrator. She noted, however, that the defendants should not regard her ruling as “a vindication of current practices.
“Even on the limited and contradictory evidence before me, it is apparent that this case raises serious, triable issues relating to workplace culture,” she wrote. “The allegations are very troubling and will require close scrutiny should this matter proceed to another forum for adjudication.”
The officers’ argument to the appeal court said Baltman took too narrow a view of the jurisdictional issue, adding labour arbitration had routinely proven ineffective for female police officers seeking justice in the workplace.
The police force and its union argued Baltman made the correct ruling and warned that allowing the suit to proceed could prove disruptive to dispute resolutions in labour relations on a national scale.
The three-person Court of Appeal panel did not weigh in on specific arguments when rendering its decision.
Lawyers for the officers and the police force did not immediately respond to requests for comment.