03/27/2017 17:30 EDT | Updated 03/28/2018 01:12 EDT

Teachers union vindicated in long running legal battle

The union representing teachers on P.E.I. has won vindication in a long running legal battle. 

The P.E.I. Court of Appeal has ruled in favour on the P.E.I. Teachers' Federation, and has overturned a lower court decision involving a dispute between the union and teacher Jo-Anne Lanigan.

The case began in 2010 when the P.E.I. Teachers' Federation declined to file a grievance with the Eastern School District on behalf of Lanigan. She'd recently been disciplined by the school-district officials and felt she'd been wronged.

Lanigan ended up suing the union, and won. Following that trial in 2015, supreme court justice Ben Taylor found the union had failed to do its job properly.

But the P.E.I Teachers' Federation filed an appeal. That appeal was heard in court over two days in February. The court of appeal issued a written decision March 23.

'Our role is not to second guess the union'

That decision overturned the lower court ruling, and cited "errors in law" as well as "palpable and overriding errors of fact" by the trial judge. 

The appeal-court decision reaffirmed the right of the union to decide to act — or not — on behalf of its members.

"Deference must be shown to the union's assessment of the situation, provided it is not patently unreasonable." reads the decision. "Our role is not to second guess the union." 

Jo-Anne Lanigan was a Grade 2 teacher and vice-principal in the fall of 2009. At meet-the teacher night that September, a parent spoke up and "publicly said things that Lanigan felt impugned her professional reputation," according to the appeal court decision.

Following attempts to resolve the situation, the parent put their concerns in writing. Lanigan sent letters to the parent in June 2010, threatening legal action if the allegedly defamatory comments were not withdrawn. Lanigan's letter spurred disciplinary action by school-district officials and resulted in her removal as vice-principal.

All six alleged breaches overturned

At trial, justice Ben Taylor, ruling in favour of Lanigan, was critical of the union and its representative, Shaun MacCormac. It had been MacCormac's job to advise Lanigan in the disciplinary matters.

But the court of appeal found MacCormac had done his job well. The appeal court rejected the trial judge's finding that the union had pre-judged the outcome of Lanigan's disciplinary matters. The appeal court overturned all six of the alleged breaches of duty by the union that the trial judge had found.

"It can readily be discerned that we reject both the trial judge's hypothesis and negative assessment of MacCormac's performance," reads the decision.

The appeal court noted that MacCormac had recommended to Lanigan that she apologize to school officials for her actions, but Lanigan declined. "Lanigan saw the issue as personal. In her view she deserved an apology for what she believed to be defamatory remarks ... her strategy was to attack," reads the decision.  

The appeal court also ruled the trial judge made unfounded conclusions about the role of Anne Hall, an Eastern School District official.

'Serious findings about ... character and motivation'

Justice Taylor suggested Hall and MacCormac made "agreements" that "produced a strategy perhaps suited to a client who was guilty," according to the appeal-court decision.

The appeal court noted Hall did not testify at the 2015 trial, yet justice Taylor "castigated MacCormac and Hall and made serious findings about their character and motivation." 

The appeal court called the trial judge's ruling "rash," but said "it would be a waste of time, court resources and party resources to send the matter back for another long trial."

The appeal court dismissed Lanigan's action against the union and set aside $277,244 in special damages that had previously been awarded to her.

The appeal court instructed lawyers for the union and the teacher to try to come to an agreement on court costs. If they can't, the appeal court will hold a hearing on the matter.