What happens when an employee is assaulted by a supervisor? As an Ontario court just ruled, when push comes to shove, the employer may also be responsible.
Richard Ayotte was a pushy boss – literally. Ayotte was seen as critical, intimidating and aggressive, thinking it would achieve results.
In 2005, Ayotte took his assertive approach too far. When one of his staff, Marta Piresferreira, allegedly failed to book a meeting, Ayotte yelled and swore at her, refused to listen to her explanation, and pushed her backwards hard enough that she hit a filing cabinet. When Piresferreira followed him to his office to protest his behaviour, Ayotte threatened her with probation.
Piresferreira later returned to work expecting an apology. Instead, she was given a Performance Improvement Plan requiring her to report to Ayotte daily or face discipline, including termination. She refused to sign, went home, and complained to the company, Bell Mobility.
The same day, Piresferreira received a letter from Bell stating it had spoken to Ayotte and that he would apologize – and then the case would be closed. No one spoke with Piresferreira to get her side of the story or to express concern for what had happened.
During the months that followed, Bell made several attempts to get Piresferreira to return to her job. Eventually, Bell just claimed she had resigned. Piresferreira was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and never returned to work.
At trial, the judge held Bell responsible for Ayotte’s actions and for failing to treat Piresferreira with civility and respect. It seemed Bell was more interested in applying the PIP than in properly investigating her complaint. Piresferreira was constructively dismissed and awarded more than $500,000 in damages because she could not work again. Bell appealed.
Recently, the Ontario Court of Appeal agreed that Piresferreira was constructively dismissed, but reduced the damages to a year of lost wages and an additional $45,000 for mental distress arising from her dismissal. Both Bell and Ayotte were responsible to pay the award.
Employers can also be responsible for the acts of their employees, however ill-advised. As well, Bell’s failure to investigate compounded its own liability.
– Daniel A. Lublin is an employment lawyer with the law firm Whitten & Lublin LLP. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org