Michalski v McMaster University, 2022 ONSC 2625 is the first Ontario court decision to address a challenge to the merits of a public sector COVID-19 vaccination policy. This case helps clarify the procedures that public entities must follow when assessing exemption requests and continues the trend of courts deferring to COVID-19 measures.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, McMaster University implemented a temporary vaccination policy that required all students to be vaccinated.
McMaster’s policy allowed for exemptions. To obtain an exemption, a student had to demonstrate the existence of a protected ground under the Ontario Human Rights Code. McMaster established administrative teams to adjudicate the exemption requests, one of which was mostly dedicated to requests on the basis of creed (religion). This team was provided with internal documents outlining how to adjudicate a claim and the types of evidence that were required to substantiate one. The team was also provided with a document summarizing the possible reasons an exemption could be denied and provided with sample language an adjudicator could use to deny a claim.
Four McMaster students sought an exemption from the policy, arguing that their decision not to be vaccinated was protected under the ground of creed in the Ontario Human Rights Code. McMaster denied the exemption requests. McMaster found that there was an insufficient nexus between the students’ professed religious beliefs and an inability to be vaccinated. It provided each student with a similar rejection letter using language selectively copied from the internal adjudication documentation.
The students sought judicial review of the denial decisions. Initially, the applicants challenged the vaccination policy under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but they subsequently narrowed their claims to: 1) whether McMaster’s decisions were reasonable and 2) whether McMaster breached the duty of fairness it owed to the students.
The Divisional Court agreed with McMaster on both issues:
Michalski provides a first look into how courts will deal with institutional approaches to adjudicating vaccination exemptions. The decision shows that a systemized administrative adjudication process with template decision-making language can uphold the duty of procedural fairness in some cases, especially where institutions expect to process a large number of applications.
This case also represents another failed attempt to challenge public sector COVID-19 decision-making. Although the Court did not undertake a substantive analysis of the university’s vaccine mandate on the basis of the Charter or the Code, the Court’s decision to uphold McMaster’s exemption refusals continues the trend of courts deferring to government and public sector decisions related to managing COVID-192.
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