Suspending a Coach Before a Hearing

Unfortunately, there are times when coaches are the subject of serious complaints of misconduct. Most organizations have in place a discipline process for dealing with such complaints (and if they do not have a discipline policy, they certainly should have). Regardless of the type of process, or how well it works, or how efficient the organization might be in pursuing a discipline matter, it still takes some time.

Given this reality, what should become of a coach during that interval? Should a coach continue to perform their duties? Is it better to bring some distance between the coach and the other people involved? As with many legal questions, the proper answer depends on the circumstances. Where the complaint is serious and, if substantiated, would give rise to a situation where the safety and well-being of other persons is at risk, it becomes necessary to remove the individual from the position pending the resolution of the complaint. In legal terms, this is known as an ‘administrative suspension’.

The Supreme Court of Canada recently considered a case involving an administrative suspension and this case is the subject matter of this column. This will explain what rights a coach, or any employee of a sports organization, would have under such circumstances and what to expect if faced with the prospect of an administrative suspension.

One of the fundamental tenets of our system of law is the notion of a person being “innocent until proven guilty”. To impose a suspension on a person can appear to be applying punishment before any misconduct has been proven. The person who is suspended may feel not only unduly punished, but also shamed in the eyes of peers or the broader community. As well, depending on the nature of the job, important work may be interrupted and opportunities may be lost. An administrative suspension of a coach just before a major sporting event, for which there has been a long period of preparation, can be personally and professionally devastating.

In the case of Cabiakman v. Industrial Alliance Life Insurance Co. [1], the Supreme Court of Canada was asked to consider whether an employer has the power to suspend an employee for purely administrative reasons as opposed to disciplinary reasons. In this case, the employee was suspended from his workplace as a result of having been charged with a criminal offense. The employee was eventually cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and was reinstated to his position. However, pending the resolution of his criminal matter, he had been suspended without pay and was seeking reimbursement for all pay during the time of the suspension.

The Supreme Court found that an employer does have the power to suspend an employee for administrative reasons related to the acts of the employee. The employer must act in the best interests and protection of the business (which in our case is the sport organization), and may take preventative action to ensure the well-being of the organization and its members. Where the employee’s continuing performance of work could potentially jeopardize the business or the well-being of the organization or its members, the employer may suspend the employee. Having said that, however, the power to suspend carries with it many caveats.

In this case, the Court recognized that a person’s employment is not simply a source of income. The Court saw employment as an important component of an employee’s identity, self-worth, and emotional well-being. Therefore, in any situation of administrative suspension, there must be a balance between the rights of the organization and the rights of the employee.

The Court set out the following requirements for administrative suspensions:

  • The suspension must be necessary to protect legitimate business interests (translated to the sport organization context, the suspension must be necessary to protect the organization’s legitimate interests, which could include but would not be limited to, the well-being and safety of its members)
  • The employer has a duty to act fairly and in good faith in deciding to impose an administrative suspension.
  • The interruption of the employee’s work must be imposed for only a relatively short period of time that is prescribed in advance.
  • Except in the most extraordinary situations, the suspension must be with pay.

In our work, we are often asked to advise on complaints about coaches. Sometimes the complaints contain serious allegations that, at the end of the day, are not proven. Nonetheless, the circumstances surrounding the complaint or the details of the specific allegation may be such that an organization is advised to suspend a coach from coaching duties until the matter can be investigated and resolved.

While this might appear to be a drastic measure, sometimes it is the most appropriate response for a sport organization. Ultimately, under our present law, sport organizations have a duty to provide a safe environment for their members and participants. When an organization must resort to an administrative suspension, the law also imposes on the organization a serious duty to act efficiently, fairly, and in a timely manner in dealing with the complaint. Any coach who finds themselves in such a situation should be aware of these obligations and take steps to ensure that the organization fulfills this high standard of care.

[1] 2004 S.C.C. 55.

Originally published: Coaches Report (2005) Vol. 11(4)

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