Bruyea’s Lawsuit Against Feds Could Be Settled Out of Court, Says Lawyer

By Tim Naumetz-THE HILL TIMES-October 25, 2010

The federal government appears ready to settle a $400,000 lawsuit by veterans advocate Sean Bruyea after Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s ruling that the Veterans Affairs Department contravened the Privacy Act by circulating his confidential personal information and medical files.

Mr. Bruyea’s lawyer would say only that following a lengthy delay in a court response to the damage claim Mr. Bruyea filed in Ontario Superior Court last March, federal lawyers representing three senior bureaucrats have stepped up legal proceedings that could result in an out-of-court settlement or a public acknowledgment of wrongdoing as well as financial compensation.

Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ told The Hill Times he and Mr. Bruyea reached the Justice Department lawyers, also representing Attorney General and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson (Niagara Falls, Ont.) in the case, soon after Ms. Stoddart released her findings in early October.

“To the government’s credit, they expressed an interest in early mediation,” Mr. Champ said, noting that all parties are continuing discussions and there’s a mediation hearing scheduled for mid-November.

“Sean appreciates the government’s willingness to take immediate steps to redress the wrong done to him. It sends a good message to the thousands of veterans across the country who have been very disturbed by this case,” added Mr. Champ, a prominent human rights lawyer who has represented Amnesty International on a pro bono basis for the past four years in its Federal Court and Military Police Complaints Commission claims of detainee torture in the Afghanistan war.

Until Ms. Stoddart ruled on Oct. 7 that the Veterans Affairs Department violated the Privacy Act by disclosing personal and medical information to bureaucrats and Cabinet ministers who had no right to the files, the government had delayed a legal response to the statement of claim for damages Mr. Bruyea filed last March 2, the court file shows. Normally, a notice of defence to the legal action would have been required at the latest within 30 days, but the government held it off until Sept. 22.

Ms. Stoddart launched her investigation after Mr. Bruyea discovered under the Access to Information Act how widely the department had circulated his medical files as an injured veteran within the department and to former veterans affairs ministers Greg Thompson, a Conservative, and Albina Guarnieri, the previous Liberal veterans affairs minister. Ms. Guarnieri notes Ms. Stoddart referred to the briefing notes she received as “appropriate” because they concerned issues Mr. Bruyea raised.

The privacy commissioner also confirmed Mr. Bruyea’s complaint that departmental officials had used his medical condition, post traumatic stress disorder, in an attempt to discredit his work as a veterans advocate opposing a new Veterans Charter. Mr. Bruyea opposed in particular a $275,000 lump-sum cash payment for severely injured veterans, that had been initially brought in under Ms. Guarnieri and implemented by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) government.

Ms. Stoddart said a departmental briefing note to former Conservative veterans minister Greg Thompson in March 2006 contained references to Mr. Bruyea’s advocacy activities as well as “considerable sensitive medical information, including diagnosis, symptoms, prognosis, chronology of interactions with the department as a client, amounts of financial benefits received, frequency of appointments and recommended treatment paths.”

Mr. Bruyea’s statement of claim named the Attorney General of Canada, a position held by Mr. Nicholson, and three department officials, Orlanda Drebit, Jane Hicks and Ken Miller, as the bureaucrats who he alleged breached his privacy and violated their duty to him as a citizen and client of the department.

The legal notice claimed $100,000 in general and reputation damages from each of the four as well as costs for the court action. The claim noted Mr. Bruyea was a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War and a retired air force intelligence officer whom the department was treating as “100 per cent” disabled by his psychological injury. Ms. Hicks, Ottawa district director of services for the department, was responsible for overseeing the delivery of departmental veterans services to Mr. Bruyea, including medical and financial support. Mr. Miller was director of public consultation at the department’s main office in Charlottetown, P.E.I. and responsible for “packing and presenting” the new veterans programs to the public. Ms. Drebit was director of service policy and national benefits administration in Charlottetown.

Mr. Bruyea told The Hill Times while he is optimistic about a settlement, he is also still wary of the government and will insist on a formal apology.

“After all I’ve been through for five years, even if they were to say something to me, I’m going to believe it when they’ve signed the apology and actually handed me the papers,” he said.

NDP MP Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore, N.S.) said the government could have avoided the legal trouble had it only treated Mr. Bruyea fairly.

“What they were doing is trying to discredit the messenger,” he told The Hill Times.

The Hill Times