Montreal’s blue collar union and its controversial president and executives were sentenced to pay $103,000, the maximum fine allowable, for contempt of court after organizing an illegal one-day strike in spite of an injunction issued by a labour tribunal the previous day.
The stern ruling, one of only a handful over the past decade that have found Quebec unions guilty of contempt of court, is intended to send a harsh warning to the labour movement that the courts will not tolerate willful blindness, according to labour lawyers.
“The respect of an order from the Quebec Labour Relations Board is paramount in a democratic society,” said Quebec Superior Court Judge Michel Déziel after agreeing to a joint recommendation made by both sides of the case over the amount of the fine. “The actions taken by the union and its president cannot be tolerated and must sanctioned severely.”
Labour lawyers remain unconvinced however that the substantial fine will have much of an impact on unions. “Time will tell if the union will have understood the message,” remarked Louis-Philippe Bourgeois, a Montreal labour lawyer with Dunton Rainville. “In the past, awards of damages against a union following an illegal strike have had much more of an impact than fines for contempt of court.”
Even Nathalie-Anne Béliveau, a Montreal employment and labour lawyer with Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP who successfully plead the case, is hedging her bets. “It’s a harsh decision, with a hefty fine, and perhaps it will lead unions to ask questions about willful blindness.”
In late 2015, amid bitter contract negotiations between the City of Montreal and the blue-collar union, the city discovered that the union was planning to hold a “special general assembly” during work hours. The city petitioned the Quebec Labour Relations Board, now known as Administrative Labour Tribunal, for an injunction against the assembly, which it obtained. The union nevertheless forged ahead with the assembly.
In its defence the union and its executives asserted that they never received the notice of the injunction. But Judge Déziel dismissed the argument. Evidence revealed that the city had emailed and faxed copies of the injunction to the union and its executives. Further, a bailiff left a copy of the injunction in the union’s office, and several media outlets reported news about the injunction. Judge Déziel also noted that the union and its executives should have known from past legal battles that the city would have sought an injunction against the assembly during work hours. And that’s aside from the evidence culled from social media postings and out-of-court admissions made by the president, Chantal Racette.
“I believe that the union underestimated the evidence of actual knowledge,” said Béliveau. “They relied on the importance of receiving notice of the injunction personally and on personally receiving papers by the bailiff. This case demonstrates that actual knowledge can be achieved through other means. That’ll like compel unions to adopt other strategies.”
Judge Déziel found in Montréal (Ville de) c. Syndicat des cols bleus regroupés de Montréal (SCFP, section locale 301) 2016 QCCS 5052 that the union and its executives acted with willful blindness by “turning a blind eye” to the existence of the injunction so they could plead that they had no knowledge of the court order. Heeding guidance from the Quebec Court of Appeal in Chartier c. Chamandy 2016 QCCA 501, Judge Déziel underlined that an “absence of intention” to disobey a court order is not a means of defence. In other words, a party that intentionally fails to respect a clear injunction that they knew about is sufficient evidence to prove mens rea.
“It is well established by jurisprudence that in matters dealing with contempt of court a party cannot plead that they had no intention of committing an offense,” noted Claude Leblanc, a Quebec City labour lawyer with Philion Leblanc Beaudry Avocats. “It is not like in criminal law where the court attempts to decipher intention.”
Following recommendations made by both parties, Judge Déziel ordered the union and its president to each pay a $50,000 fine, and three other union executives $1,000 each. It is not clear whether Racette will pay the fine herself or whether the union will cover it. Jacques Lamoureux, the union’s legal counsel, declined to comment. Judge Déziel ordered that $50,000 of the total amount of the fines be donated to Accueil Bonneau, a charitable organization based in Old Montreal that helps the homeless. The balance will be paid to the Fonds consolidé du revenu du Québec, a provincial government organization that normally handles fines levied by Quebec courts.
“It does not happen often nowadays for unions to be found guilty of contempt of court,” said Leblanc who represents unions. “Today unions or union representatives do not need this decision or others to remind them that they cannot overlook the conclusions rendered by a court. These situations are the exception.”
This story was originally published in The Lawyers Weekly.