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The lawsuit filed in April against Shoppers Drug Mart alleged that it breached franchise agreements with unethical corporate practices, including unnecessary billing, and included personal details about Sivajanan Sivapalan’s own experiences working as a Shoppers pharmacist.Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press

The Ontario College of Pharmacists put pressure on a pharmacist to resign from its board and launched a conflict-of-interest investigation against him because he participated in a lawsuit against Shoppers Drug Mart, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The pharmacist – Sivajanan Sivapalan – denies he is in a conflict and says he sought and received support from the college’s counsel before the lawsuit was launched, the documents say.

The details of the turmoil provide a view behind the scenes of the college’s high-profile promise to tackle corporate health care ethics, and illustrate the tensions that self-regulating professions face in trying to rein in major players.

On March 25, the college’s board of directors voted unanimously on a “zero tolerance policy” for pharmacy business practices that affect patient care. The vote was prompted by concerns that the college heard from thousands of pharmacists – particularly those who worked for Shoppers, owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd. L-T – that they were feeling pressure from corporate head office to bill for unnecessary services.

A week later, lawyers Andrea Sanche and Aly Háji of Ricketts Harris LLP approached Mr. Sivapalan about serving as a lead plaintiff in a proposed class-action lawsuit against Shoppers, according to documents prepared by the lawyers, which were later shared with members of the college’s board.

Mr. Sivapalan declined to comment to The Globe, and Ms. Sanche and Mr. Háji would only confirm that they prepared the documents for their client’s use.

College spokesperson Dave Bourne said in an e-mail that he could not provide a detailed response to The Globe’s questions because of confidentiality requirements. He said that “the college disagrees with Mr. Sivapalan’s characterization of events as set out in the materials provided to you.”

According to a timeline that was part of the package, Mr. Sivapalan approached senior college staff, including its general counsel, for guidance on participating in the lawsuit, and he received their support.

But just days later, Mr. Sivapalan was told otherwise when he was notified by the board that he was in a conflict of interest, according to e-mails viewed by The Globe.

On April 11, the lawsuit was filed. It alleged that Shoppers breached franchise agreements with unethical corporate practices, including unnecessary billing, and included personal details about Mr. Sivapalan’s own experiences working as a Shoppers pharmacist.

Loblaw has said that the lawsuit has “no merit.” The company has not yet filed a statement of defence.

On April 12, college board chair James Morrison – an independent pharmacist based in Burlington, Ont. – e-mailed fellow board members and senior college staff to say that the college was aware of the lawsuit and urging them not to discuss the matter.

“We are currently seeking legal advice internally on this situation and strongly ask that our board directors do not engage in any posts online about this or discuss the matter with each other until Christian has prepared advice for us,” Mr. Morrison said in an e-mail included in the documents, referring to Christian Guerette, the college’s general counsel.

The following week, members of the college – including Mr. Morrison and Mr. Guerette – discussed with Mr. Sivapalan and his lawyers his continued presence on the board of directors. according to the documents.

On April 18, board vice-chair Sara Ingram notified Mr. Sivapalan that the college would hire an independent third party to investigate whether he had violated the college’s conflict-of-interest policies by participating in the lawsuit.

Later that day, Ms. Sanche, co-counsel for Mr. Sivapalan, wrote to the college to say he was being asked to resign, according to an e-mail.

On April 22, lawyer Erica Richler – who identified herself as being retained by the college – wrote back to Ms. Sanche to update and “clarify” her on the investigation.

“The Board has not demanded that Mr. Sivapalan resign,” Ms. Richler wrote in an e-mail included in the documents. “Rather, the College’s General Counsel, Christian Guerette, asked if Mr. Sivalapan [sic] would resign and Mr. Sivapalan declined.”

Ms. Richler continued that the purpose of the investigation was to examine whether Mr. Sivapalan “was in a conflict of interest when the Board has considered corporate practice issues, including when the zero tolerance policy was discussed by the Board on March 25, 2024, and whether he failed to disclose that conflict, as well as whether his role in the lawsuit presents an ongoing or potential conflict of interest with his role as a Board director.”

The documents also allege that the college and Loblaw were communicating throughout this time. Mr. Bourne, the college’s spokesperson, confirmed to The Globe that the college met with Shoppers Drug Mart, Walmart, Rexall and Loblaw pharmacy leadership to discuss their workplace survey and town-hall results.

Loblaw spokesperson Catherine Thomas told The Globe that the company was not aware of any pressure Mr. Sivapalan faced to resign, nor did the company ask for such a result. “We have only asked that he be recused (or recuse himself) from anything related to Shoppers’ business,” she said in an e-mail.

Loblaw “routinely” meets with pharmacist colleges across the country, according to Ms. Thomas. Its most recent meetings with the Ontario college concerned “the changes we’ve made related to how we support associate owners and Loblaw pharmacists as they deliver health care in Ontario,” she wrote.

At the end of May, Mr. Sivapalan was advised that the investigation was taking longer than anticipated and would not be completed in time for a public board meeting scheduled for June 10. Ms. Richler wrote in a May 29 e-mail that the college was asking him to file submissions to the investigators within a few days, or to recuse himself from the meeting entirely, because the issue of “corporate pressure” was expected to dominate the discussion.

Ms. Sanche responded in an e-mail to the college that her client rejected those options.

On Wednesday, the college moved the date of the June meeting to July 8. Mr. Bourne said he expects the report to be returned later this month, and if further action is warranted, the issue will be considered by the board at the July meeting.

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