CASE ALERT: Ontario Court of Appeal Finds University Discriminated Against Student with Disabilities

In the case of Longueépée v University of Waterloo, 2020 ONCA 830, a student with disabilities, Mr. Longueépée, was refused admission to the University of Waterloo’s (the “University”) Faculty of Arts in the fall of 2013. He applied using the grades he previously received while attending Dalhousie University, during which he had “undiagnosed and unaccommodated disabilities” (paragraph 3). Recognizing this, and in light of the fact that the student’s grades were far below the minimum standards, and his application was late, the University convened an admissions committee to consider Mr. Longueépée’s application which consisted of academic transcripts, information about his volunteer work and reference letters.

The admissions committee refused Mr. Longueépée’s admission to the program, finding that he did not “demonstrate the ability to succeed at university” (para 3). Mr. Longueépée then filed a complaint against the University to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (the “HRTO”) which found that although the grades-based admissions standard had a discriminatory effect on the student on the basis of his then-undiagnosed and unaccommodated disability, the University had reasonably accommodated Mr. Longueépée and dismissed the complaint.

Mr. Longueépée was successful on judicial review in that the divisional court found that the HRTO’s decision was not reasonable. It concluded that it was up to the University to accommodate Mr. Longueépée during the admission process given his previously undiagnosed disability when he attended high school and Dalhousie University, and that the University had failed to do so by relying solely on the previous grades and for not demonstrating how a truly holistic analysis would amount to undue hardship.

The matter was sent back to the Admissions Committee with directions. The University appealed this decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal set aside the original HRTO decision finding that the University had discriminated against Mr. Longueépée by failing to accommodate his disabilities in its admissions process but remitted the matter back to the HRTO, as opposed to the admissions committee, to determine the appropriate remedy against the University.

Key Takeaways:

  • Standard of Review: The Court declined to distinguish between the “reasonableness” and “patently unreasonable” standards of review as they pertain to HRTO decisions and left open the possibility of revisiting the issue in another case. The Court applied the most current “reasonableness” framework as set out in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov 2019 SCC 65.
  • The HRTO decision was unreasonable: The Court found that because HRTO assumed undue hardship without the University raising it as a defense or providing any evidence of hardship, and because the HRTO concluded that the University accommodated the student because there was an accommodation process in place without having to actually accommodate the student, the HRTO decision was unreasonable (paragraph 62). The decision underscores the importance of ensuring a complete evidentiary record at first instance.
  • The Duty to Accommodate: The Court affirmed the procedural and substantive elements of the duty to accommodate, noting that in some instances, procedure cannot be separated from the nature and extent of the accommodation. Although the University had an accommodation process in place for admissions (i.e. convening an admissions committee to assess students with extenuating circumstances on a holistic basis and not just on grades) it failed, in reality to reasonably accommodate Mr. Longueépée’s unaccommodated grades, by rendering all other supporting material he submitted as “irrelevant” to his academic success, thereby relying exclusively on his previous grades – something that the initial HRTO decision failed to acknowledge. The Court found the HRTO decision did not contain an “internally coherent chain of analysis” to justify a finding that the grade-based admissions standard was discriminatory but that the University did sufficiently accommodate the student when it nevertheless based its decision solely on the students unaccommodated grades.
  • Deference to Universities’ Academic Decisions is not infinite: This case recognizes the tensions that can exist between the deference owned to universities who are experts in their own internal decision-making procedures and the importance of maintaining academic freedom on the one hand, and upholding human rights (including the duty to accommodate) by ensuring compliance with provincial human rights legislation and the Canadian Charter, on the other. Justice Lauwers’ concurring opinion in this case sheds light on both the limits of the duty to accommodate as well as the level of deference owed to universities, revealing a delicate but necessary balance.

PooranLaw will continue to monitor legal developments related to human rights and education law for students with disabilities.  In the meantime, if you require legal assistance, we encourage you to reach out to your regular PooranLaw lawyer, or any member of our team.

Note: This article provides general information only and does not constitute, and should not be relied upon as, legal advice or opinion. PooranLaw Professional Corporation holds the copyright to this article and the article and its contents may not be copied or reproduced in any form, in whole or in part, without the express permission of PooranLaw Professional Corporation.