A Nova Scotia provincial court judge is suing the province and another judge for $5 million in damages.

The lawsuit launched by Judge Rickcola Brinton, 48, lays bare a long-simmering dispute over COVID-19 vaccinations. 

The suit was filed late last month in Nova Scotia Supreme Court and first reported by allNovaScotia.

While rumours and questions about Brinton’s absence from the courtroom have swirled for months, details in this lawsuit are the first to lay out a version of what was going on behind the scenes. Until this, the official explanation was that Brinton was on an unspecified medical leave.

Brinton’s absence led to some cases being dismissed because they hadn’t been dealt with in a timely manner, part of a larger problem with court delays.

The issue of requiring a COVID-19 vaccination in order to work roiled the nation in 2022 with protesters paralyzing Ottawa for weeks. A trial of that demonstration’s leaders is still playing out in court.

According to Brinton’s lawsuit, in September 2021, Chief Judge Pamela Williams emailed provincial court judges in the midst of the pandemic to ask them if they’d be prepared to reveal their vaccination status.

Brinton replied to that general query on Oct. 1, 2021.

‘I have concerns with medical privacy’

“I have concerns with medical privacy,” she wrote.

“I also know that the vaccination mandates and passports may be disproportionately impacting racialized communities. And as an essential service, will we be creating a two-tiered society for those who already feel as though we are not free to serve them.”

On Oct. 7, 2021, according to her lawsuit, Brinton went further, saying that her position was “a matter of conscience and a result of prayerful contemplation.”

Nova Scotia’s Chief Justice Michael MacDonald applauds during Judge Rickcola Brinton’s robing ceremony to become a provincial and family court judge in May 2017. (Images East Photography/The Executive Office of the Nova Scotia Judiciary)

As a compromise, Brinton proposed she frequently self-test for COVID. Williams reportedly dismissed that idea because it was not an option available to everyone. Williams proposed that Brinton could preside over arraignments from her home, providing other judges take over her trials. Again, according to the lawsuit, other judges were unwilling to do that.

None of the allegations contained in this lawsuit has been tested in court.

On Nov. 1, 2021, Williams wrote to the judges:

“I can advise that only fully vaccinated judges will be assigned to sit in our courtrooms for the foreseeable future. I am not inclined to issue a public statement to this effect but each of you are at liberty to advise staff, lawyers and members of the public that provincial court judges sitting in courtrooms are fully vaccinated.”

Vaccination status not disclosed

Twenty four days later, Williams issued a public statement, saying all presiding judges are fully vaccinated. In the meantime, Brinton and her family all tested positive for COVID and she underwent a 10-day quarantine period.

Then, according to her lawsuit, “Brinton found herself suffering from overwhelming exhaustion and anxiety arising from Williams’s actions.” Her doctor advised she go off work for four weeks and avoid reading work emails.

On Dec. 17, 2021, Brinton wrote to Williams, saying she’d been advised by her doctor to take another four to six weeks off work. On Feb. 22, 2022, Williams replied, saying she will not approve disability leave, unless Brinton provides “evidence of a disability”.

In that email, Williams goes on to say that because Brinton will not divulge her vaccination status, she will be considered unvaccinated and unable to preside in person in a courtroom. The note concludes: “Regrettably, I will have no recourse other than to suspend you and refer the matter to the judicial council.”

Former chief judge Pamela Williams ended her term in that position in August. (CBC)

Brinton replies that she will go on long-term disability. Her doctor provides a note, saying Brinton will be off from December 2021 to at least mid-May 2022.

The lawsuit claims that Williams wrote directly to Brinton’s doctor, asking about her medical status. The doctor did not disclose that information because Brinton had not approved it.

Emotional and mental damage

The lawsuit claims that Williams’ actions violated principles of judicial independence and judicial impartiality and also violated Brinton’s rights to medical privacy.

Brinton claims Williams’ actions caused emotional and mental damages in the form of stress, demoralization, betrayal, anxiety and depression and amount to bad faith and constructive removal. The lawsuit further claims Williams’ actions were “malicious, oppressive and high-handed.”

No comment from judiciary

A spokesperson for the Nova Scotia judiciary said they would not be responding to the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said they are still studying the lawsuit but would not be commenting on a matter before the courts.

Williams ended her term as chief judge in August but still hears cases in Dartmouth.

A request for comment from Brinton or her lawyer has so far not been answered.

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