Employees at scandal-plagued eHealth Ontario have won an early round in their legal battle over the cancellation of up to $6-million in bonuses and pay hikes they say they were owed despite a freeze on Ontario public sector wages.
In a judgment dated Nov. 26, Mr. Justice Paul Perell of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice certified a lawsuit launched on behalf of eHealth employees as a class action, allowing it to proceed to trial. The lawsuit's allegations have not been proven.
The Ontario government has vowed to fight the lawsuit, launched last year on behalf of hundreds of employees of the provincial agency, which was set up to manage electronic health records.
Despite a wage freeze announced by the Liberal government in 2010, it emerged last year that the Crown agency's workers were still promised merit-pay increases of 1.9 per cent and bonuses averaging 7.8 per cent of their salaries, igniting opposition critics. Health Minister Deb Matthews asked the eHealth board to reconsider, and the hikes and bonuses were cancelled. A group of eHealth employees then filed a lawsuit challenging the move.
In his ruling, Judge Perell says the case against eHealth, which alleges that it breached its contracts with employees by cancelling the bonuses and increases without proper notice, should go ahead as a class action. The government argues that it had the right to suspend the bonuses and increases.
The plaintiffs' lawyer on the case, Jacqueline King of Shibley Righton LLP, said the ruling was only the beginning of the fight: "We are pleased with the ruling but it is the first step. Now it is for the court to determine if eHealth can take away a bonus that was in place for a number of years without proper notice to their employees."
In an e-mail, Robert Mitchell, the vice-president of stakeholder relations and communications for eHealth Ontario, said the agency had just received the ruling late Tuesdsay: "eHealth Ontario is reviewing the decision and is not in a position to offer any further comment at this time."
Most Ontarians know the name eHealth because of the scandal that emerged in 2009, when a provincial ombudsman's report identified with irregularities and overspending and found that the agency had spent $1-billion, but accomplished little.
Ms. King said she does not know how much money is at stake in the lawsuit over eHealth bonuses, but it has been estimated at up to $6-million. The lawsuit also demands $1-million in punitive damages.