A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice is a stark reminder to employers of the obligation to treat its employees fairly and with respect, both during their employment and in the manner of their termination of employment.
In the case of Strudwick v Applied Consumer & Clinical Evaluations Inc., the Court noted the employer’s “horrendous conduct”, and not only awarded the plaintiff employee twenty-four months’ pay in lieu of notice, but also awarded $20,000 in damages to compensate the plaintiff employee for injuries to her “dignity, feelings and self-respect”, contrary to the Ontario Human Rights Code. In addition, the court awarded punitive damages for the employer’s woeful conduct in the amount of $15,000.
When dismissed, the plaintiff employee was fifty-six years of age and had been employed by the company for more than fifteen years. Approximately one year prior to her termination of employment, the employee had become deaf, seemingly caused by a virus.
As a consequence of her loss of hearing, the employee requested accommodation from her employer, including having the Canadian Hearing Society attend to determine what accommodations were necessary. She also requested to reverse the direction of her desk so she could see people as they entered her office, and that certain TTY equipment be purchased. The plaintiff employee offered to pay herself for the installation of a voice carry-over telephone and a visual fire alarm. All requests were refused by the employer.
Ultimately, the plaintiff employee was terminated for “insubordination and wilful misconduct”, relating to her failure to speak at a company-sponsored speaking club the day before. When the plaintiff employee refused to sign a letter regarding her termination and waiver, she was personally escorted from the building.
The Court found that the employer’s conduct was an abject failure to consider or accommodate the plaintiff employee, despite her repeated, reasonable and varied requests. The Court found the company’s behaviour to have been harsh, demeaning and deliberate, and designed to force the plaintiff employee to quit.
It is imperative that an employer be seen to treat its employees fairly and with respect, failing which they may be looking at a significant level of damages to be paid as a consequence.