Disclosure of information during appeal should be limited

Several individuals who had appealed a Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) decision to recoup an overpayment of employment insurance (EI) benefits, complained that personal information was improperly disclosed during the appeal process.

The complainants were among over 200 individuals who received EI benefits after losing their employment. Because they filed a grievance about their termination that resulted in being awarded severance packages, HRDC commenced action to recoup the EI benefits the individuals received for the period they were covered by the severance package. They appealed HRDC's decision to the EI Board of Referees.

As part of the appeal process, HRDC's local office sent a disclosure package to each of the appellants. Each package was to contain information related to that particular individual's appeal. However, one complainant's package included a document that contained the names, addresses, phone numbers and Social Insurance Numbers (SINs) of 14 other individuals involved in the appeal. When he informed HRDC of the impropriety, it reviewed its records and established that only two of the appellants had received this document.

HRDC immediately took steps to retrieve the document from both individuals and replace it with a properly vetted copy. It also contacted by phone or letter the others whose personal information had been inadvertently revealed and explained the error.

After they lost their appeal, the appellants sought a second-level review that required HRDC's district office to send each appellant a disclosure package related to that particular individual. Once again, one of the complainants got the identical document he had received previously, disclosing personal information about 14 other appellants. It was this second disclosure that prompted the complaint to me.

I was troubled that HRDC's district office would disclose the same information as the local office, despite the admission that the disclosure had been made in error. Clearly, the document should have been properly vetted by the local office the first time it was sent. The district office compounded this error when it sent the same information a second time, which it felt was required to ensure procedural fairness. I concluded that HRDC had violated the complainants' rights under the Privacy Act.

I therefore recommended that HRDC build in procedures that would respect procedural fairness throughout the various levels of the EI appeals process while at the same time recognizing its obligations under the Privacy Act to disclose personal information only when it is directly relevant to the appeal at hand.

In another case, a woman complained that information she had provided to HRDC to support her claim for a survivor's benefit under the Canada Pension Plan was disclosed to family members of her deceased common-law husband. HRDC had received applications from both the complainant and the deceased's wife by marriage, and ultimately gave the benefit to the common-law wife. The legal wife filed an appeal of HRDC's decision with the Office of the Commissioner of the Review Tribunals (OCRT).

The Review Tribunal Rules of Procedure require HRDC to convey to the OCRT copies of any documents relevant to its decisions. Under the same Rules, the OCRT must share copies of these same documents with the appellant. Therefore, the OCRT provided copies of all documents it received from the deceased's common-law wife. These documents contained information the common-law wife had given to HRDC to demonstrate her relationship with the deceased and her entitlement to the benefit - including her SIN, her application for Old Age Security, a copy of a property deed and information about a joint bank account.

HRDC's disclosure to the OCRT does not offend the Privacy Act - it was in accordance with a regulation that authorized the disclosure under an Act of Parliament. Furthermore, the OCRT is not subject to the Privacy Act. Nevertheless, I was concerned that the OCRT obtained more information from HRDC than was absolutely required. Some information, such as the common-law wife's SIN and details about her bank account, was not necessarily a factor in HRDC's decision, and did not need to be shared with the OCRT for appeal purposes. In response to my concerns, HRDC agreed to review the documents it intends to submit to the OCRT on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind the privacy rights of all individuals concerned while providing sufficient information to ensure a fair and complete hearing.

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