In Trudelle (Litigation Guardian of) v. Saskatchewan Hockey Association Inc. (decided 2003), Justice Matheson of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench refused to overturn the decision of a minor hockey association to suspend a 16-year old player for a year because he had struck a referee.
Trudelle was a 16-year old member of a Regina Tier I hockey team who had professional aspirations. At the end of a game with a rival team, Trudelle was involved in an altercation with a player from the opposing team. A linesman, Nathan Eberle, intervened to separate the players. However, according to certain eye witnesses, in the process of being separated, Trudelle verbally abused the official and deliberately head-butted him.
Based on the official game report, the player was suspended indefinitely, pending an investigation. Abuse of an official is covered under the rules of the association, a non-share capital corporation incorporated under the Saskatchewan Non-profit Corporations Act, 1995 (the "Act"). Head-butting an official results in a one-year suspension.
The association suspended the player for one year from the date of the incident, which meant that he would lose the ability to participate in hockey for most of two seasons.
The player pursued his right to an internal appeal. However, a majority of the four members of the committee concluded that he had violated the rules and upheld his one-year suspension. The regulations of the association provided that decisions of the appeal committee are final and binding on the parties. Nevertheless, the player, acting through his parent as litigation guardian, then appealed under the Act, including for relief against oppressive conduct.
Justice Matheson ruled in favour of the association, holding that:
● The association's appeals committee accepted the testimony of the linesman, the referee and one other person attending the game, and this formed the basis of the committee's conclusion.
● The court will not reverse findings of fact of the appeals committee unless it can be established that the committee made a palpable and overriding error. The appeals committee, as the trier of fact, is in a privileged position to assess the credibility of witnesses. A court reviewing the matter does not have the benefit of having seen or heard those witnesses and, therefore, it would be startling to reject their testimony.
● The onus was on the applicant player to establish that his suspension was unjustified.
● Given that the decision of the appeals committee were final and binding on the parties, the court could not import a further appeal procedure.
● Since the regulations of the association were strictly followed, it is impossible to provide relief to the applicant under the oppression remedy in the Act.
3. Key Observations
The most important takeaway from Trudelle is that, if an organization adopts a fair and well-conceived set of rules and regulations, the courts are much more likely to defer to the organization's internal decision-making process rather than be tempted to substitute the court's decision for that of the organization itself. Here, Trudelle's suspension depended on eyewitness accounts of the incident at the end of the game. The association's rules unambiguously provided for the appropriate penalty: a one-year suspension.
Wisely, the association provided for an internal appeal process that included hearing from witnesses. It is extremely difficult for a court to overturn a finding of credibility if the internal appeals committee sees and hears live witnesses while the court does not. The onus was on the suspended player to show that his suspension was unwarranted. Another good design feature was that the association's regulations clearly provided that the decision of the internal appeals committee was final and binding on the parties.
Accordingly, Trudelle illustrates the benefits of developing and invoking a well-conceived internal appeal process.