CBC Decision to fire Jian Ghomeshi: More Details to Come?

Everyone is talking about the CBC decision to fire Jian Ghomeshi. Certainly, Canadians love a good sex scandal story as do readers across the world. In fact, I have already been contacted by several people in the U.S. and asked about the Canadian legal perspective in this type of case.  This story has legs.

But it is far too early to draw any definitive conclusions. I am not involved in this case in any way and have no first hand knowledge.  I am certainly in no position to assess whether or not Ghomeshi’s conduct was such that it actually substantiated the termination of his employment. But a few observations can be made to this point in time.

For one thing, unionized employees generally face quite an uphill battle in launching lawsuits. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled, on a number of occasions, that unionized employees who are fired must use their grievance arbitration process. As a unionized employee, this means that Ghomeshi must proceed with a grievance arbitration with respect to the main  issue in his dispute – whether the CBC had just cause for terminating his employment.

Ghomeshi’s lawyers are obviously aware of this law. As a result, they have not sued for “wrongful dismissal.” Instead, they have framed the claim as one of “breach of confidence” and “defamation.” This is essentially a back-door effort to circumvent the existing case law and try to show that the essence of Ghomeshi’s case is not really wrongful dismissal.

Hard to imagine that much of the case will proceed successfully. In all likelihood, there will be a preliminary motion in which the CBC will seek to have most, if not all of the case thrown out. The basis for the motion will be the argument that this is really a lawsuit over the CBC decision to terminate Ghomeshi’s employment. The Statement of Claim itself alleges that the CBC fired Ghomeshi because it made a moral judgment about the appropriateness of Ghomeshi’s sexual conduct. For the most part, this type of allegation and dispute would be the type of issue that an arbitrator has the exclusive legal jurisdiction to adjudicate in a unionized context.

What about allegations of “breach of confidence?” In certain circumstances, dismissed employees can succeed with tort claims that are beyond the scope of the normal dismissal claim. But, for the most part, the court must find that the conduct is outside of the scope of the employment relationship.

Here the Statement of Claim alleges that Ghomeshi shared various details about his sexual practices, which it is alleged included consensual BDSM. The claim alleges that Ghomeshi shared this information with the CBC “voluntarily and in good faith” in the interest of working with the CBC to refute “false allegations.”

Does this duty of confidence normally exist? It might in certain limited circumstances. For the most part, when employees tell their employers about conduct in which they are involved, they are not normally immunizing themselves from their employer’s future assessment of the propriety of their conduct. To date, Canadian law has not normally recognized a principal of prophylactic, premature explanation as a means of inoculating oneself from future disciplinary action.

If the facts demonstrate that CBC either explicitly, or even implicitly, undertook to ensure confidentiality and agreed that it would not use Ghomeshi’s information for any other purpose, perhaps there might be an argument. But that does not even appear to be the allegation that is being made in the claim.

Overall, there may well be something to the suggestion that has been made by some commentators that the Statement of Claim is largely strategic, a further protective move aimed at discouraging any would-be complainants from coming forward under the threat of facing expensive litigation. But I did not read the Statement of Claim as one that was filled with defamatory statements made about other individuals. Nevertheless, given that the CBC is not likely to back away from the litigation any time soon, one can’t help but wonder about the real intended recipients of the claim and the real goals of the lawsuit.

As I mentioned, I am in no position to predict the final results or assess the various claims. But if at least part of the claim remains public (union arbitration hearings are not), salacious news stories will create lots of buzz. Canadians are bound to find the details of Ghomeshi’s alleged BDSM lifestyle titillating, particularly in the wake of the world wide success of 50 Shades of Grey.

The employment law question, assuming that Ghomeshi’s alleged conduct was in fact consensual, will be whether an employer can fire a high profile employee for legal personal behaviour to which it objects because of its concerns about its own profile and image. If the case is ever actually decided (rather than settled like most Canadian cases), the decision is likely to make for some fascinating and very entertaining reading.

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