For many people who work in professions that are governed by regulatory bodies, it’s critical for their careers that they abide by the standards and practices demanded by that governing body. For example, the practice of law in Alberta is governed by the Law Society of Alberta. Many professional regulatory bodies have limits about the relationships people in that profession can have with those they treat or represent.
This recent case deals with a chiropractor and the Alberta College and Association of Chiropractors. The plaintiff in the case is a chiropractor who entered a relationship with a woman who used to be his patient. The Association has strict rules about when someone can be in a relationship with a patient, but the plaintiff says those rules are discriminatory. The matter came before the court after the plaintiff asked for the tribunal hearing established by the defendant to be deemed a violation of his rights.
Chiropractor enters relationship with patient
As we mentioned earlier, the plaintiff is a chiropractor who entered into a relationship with a patient (MW) in July 2019. MW was a patient of the plaintiff at the time, and the plaintiff said that she had made overtures to him, which he had previously declined. When he finally accepted an invitation to dinner with her, he said he referred her to another chiropractor. They continued seeing each other, and the relationship got serious. However, she was not satisfied with the chiropractor she saw and went back to having him treat her until September 2020.
Alberta’s chiropractors are prohibited from dating or having sexual relations with patients with limited exceptions. These include waiting for 12 months from when they were a patient before commencing a relationship. The legislation also provides an exception for couples who are spouses. This is where things get tricky.
Plaintiff says he and former patient are spouses
The plaintiff told the court that he and MW have essentially held themselves out as a couple in July 2019 and should be considered spouses. He said they do not live together because the plaintiff is going through a divorce. His religious beliefs prohibit him from cohabitating with a partner before marriage. He said that he and MW are spouses in all other respects. He stated the following:
- They have access to each other’s homes,
- She prepares meals in his home for him and his son,
- He performs minor repairs at her home,
- They make all major decisions together,
- They are engaged to be married,
- Their sincerely held religious beliefs forbid cohabitation before that marriage, and
- But for those religious beliefs, they would have been living together before any intimacy.
The court shared that the parties agreed with many of the facts, but the defendant and plaintiff do not agree when the doctor/patient relationship may have turned personal. The defendants told the court that a disciplinary hearing would be a more appropriate forum to determine this than the courts.
Does the College’s definition of spouse infringe on the plaintiff’s religious rights?
The plaintiff told the court that the defendant’s decision to proceed to a disciplinary hearing means they already determined he and MW are not spouses. He said that since the hearing tribunals involving the defendant cannot rule on Charter breaches, the court must do so.
The court wrote that provincial legislation under which the defendant governs does not define spouse. Instead, a tribunal would be able to determine whether the relationship between the parties constitutes them being spouses, even if it does not fit within a traditional definition of “spouses.” The court added that other decisions have found that sharing a residence is not the only or paramount consideration to determining that people are spouses.
In turning to how the case relates to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the court said that while the tribunal could not determine a law is unconstitutional, it also can’t “trample” on the Charter. Courts have already held that regulatory bodies are subject to Charter scrutiny. This means that it’s not a violation of the plaintiff’s Charter rights to be under the jurisdiction of the College or to have a hearing before its tribunal. If the tribunal were to rule against the plaintiff, he would still appeal the decision on Charter grounds.
Ultimately, the court found that the plaintiff was asking it to make a declaration defining a term used in his profession’s Standards because he anticipated their tribunal would rule against him. The court found that the defendant, which governs the plaintiff’s profession, was better suited to determine whether the plaintiff and his partner were, indeed, spouses when he resumed his treatment of her.
The court ruled that it did not have sufficient evidence concerning the nature and start of the relationship to determine whether the plaintiff and his partner complied with the defendant’s standards or if they were obligated to do so. As a result, the plaintiff’s motion was dismissed, and the College’s disciplinary committee will, in all likelihood, hear the matter.
Calgary employment lawyers helping clients in matters related to human rights violations
At HMC Lawyers, our employment lawyers work with employers and employees on the legal obligations of employee/employer relationships and the implications of wrongful or constructive dismissal. We also work with clients on matters related to human rights code complaints. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you are an employee facing workplace harassment or discrimination or an employer facing or is concerned with potential claims under the Alberta Human Rights Act. We can be reached online or by phone at 1-800-480-3534 and would be happy to schedule an initial consultation today.