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Focus: Judge rules Bell Mobility discriminated

Focus on: Woman’s case involves phone activation policy
|Written By Michael McKiernan

A cancer patient bedridden by chemotherapy treatment has won $10,000 from Bell Mobility after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the company discriminated against her by making her appear in person to activate her cellphone plan.

In Mills v. Bell Mobility Inc., CHRT member Edward Lustig found Bell’s same-day activation policy discriminated against former school principal Linda Mills, and any other person unable to get themselves to one of the company’s stores or who could only do so by endangering their health.  

Bell could not justify its differential treatment of Mills because it failed to consider the reasonableness of any alternatives to an in-person visit, including the use of videoconferencing apps such as Skype or Facetime, Lustig concluded.

“In the circumstances of this case, Ms. Mills had to risk her health and safety to be able to access the benefits of a postpaid cellular phone with same-day activation. Contrary to Bell’s submissions, I find the fact that Ms. Mills did ultimately attend in-person at the store had a negative impact on her as it caused her great difficulty, was dangerous to her health and contrary to the medical advice of her doctor,” Lustig wrote in his Jan. 24 decision, awarding her $10,000 plus interest in compensation for pain and suffering.

According to Lustig’s decision, Mills was diagnosed with cancer in late 2013, and she began chemotherapy before suffering a stroke that nearly killed her in early 2014. After several weeks of rehab in Toronto, she returned to her home in London, Ont. in a very weak condition, bedridden, partially paralyzed by the stroke and under doctor’s orders to stay in the house barring an emergency.  

In July of that year, she decided she would need a personal cellphone to replace the one her school had provided her, since she was unable to go back to work. So she made arrangements for her son to pick it up on a day visit from his home out of the country.  

However, Mills ran into trouble when her son was repeatedly told over the phone by staff at Bell that his mother would have to present herself at a store if she wanted her phone activated on the same day she bought it, due to concerns about fraud cases involving identity theft by individuals taking out plans in other people’s names.

Mills’ son offered to come in on her behalf, with all her identification documents, including a valid Power of Attorney she had previously signed in his favour, but he hit a brick wall as the Bell representatives stuck rigidly to their activation standards policy.

Feeling she was left with no choice, Mills defied medical advice to travel to the store and got her phone, but she subsequently complained about her treatment. She represented herself at the week-long hearing, and she was described as “both courageous and inspirational” by Lustig in his decision.

The adjudicator declined to order special compensation against Bell for reckless or willful discrimination, noting that the “iconic and excellent company” is well managed and “usually cares about its customers, including disabled Canadians.”

“One needs only to watch television these days to see its commitment to helping Canadians understand and deal with problems related to mental health to know that this is a socially responsible company. Unfortunately, in this case it slipped in its obligations. I’m sure it will come up with an acceptable modification to its Retail Activation Standards to deal with the problem presented by the circumstances in this case and that were probably never contemplated by it,” Lustig added.

Bell Media spokesman Nathan Gibson said in a statement to Law Times that the company takes its commitment to its disabled customers “very seriously.”

“We are currently reviewing the decision and our retail activation processes to determine the best course for preventing a similar situation,” Gibson said.

As part of his ruling, Lustig gave the company until the end of July to deliver a modified same-day activation policy for his approval.

Bell’s alternative option for customers unable or unwilling to be identified in person in-store involved completing their orders online or over the phone. Cellphones were then shipped to the address associated with the credit or debit card used, minimizing the risk of fraud. However, delivery of the phone by mail takes several days, an option that was unacceptable to Mills.  

Lustig concluded the company was wrong in its assessment that online or phone orders provided Mills with the same level of service offered to the rest of its customers.

Saba Ahmad, a civil litigator based in Toronto, says she was surprised to see the case proceed far enough to require a decision.

“Someone should have woken up and said, ‘Isn’t there a better way than humiliating a person like this?’ This woman was badly disabled and really should not have been expected to go to such extreme lengths to identify herself,” says Ahmad.

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